1962: James Hanratty, the killer all along

9 comments April 4th, 2012 Headsman

Fifty years ago today, still insisting that he had “a clean conscience,” James Hanratty was hanged at Bedford Prison for the murder of Michael Gregsten and the rape-shooting of his mistress Valerie Storie.

Hanratty, a petty criminal with no history of violence — “I try to live a respectable life, except for my housebreaking” he testified* — fell into a web of questionable circumstantial evidence, plus the (also questionable**) eyewitness identification of the surviving Ms. Storie.

It was called the “A6 murder” because a stickup man had forced the lovers at gunpoint to drive him along that road, until pulling them over at the aptly-named Deadman’s Hill where he did the vicious deeds and left his victims for dead.

This was a bizarre and shocking crime, and the investigation led back to Hanratty only via a winding, almost accidental trail.

The murder weapon materialized on a bus, wiped clean of fingerprints; later, cartridges to match it materialized at a boarding house, and a confused reconstruction of whose aliases were occupying which rooms there uncertainly suggested Hanratty as a suspect.

The case, checking in at a then-record 21 trial days, featured 70 witnesses battling over inconclusive data points like the doubtful relationship between autobiographical remarks made by the killer and Hanratty’s actual biography, and Hanratty’s want of an apparent motive for an act so foreign to his previous m.o. On the other hand, some witnesses put him in incriminating places, and Hanratty damningly lied about and changed his alibi.

What to do? A jury mired in hours of inconclusive deliberation at one point sent back to the court to clarify the concept of “reasonable doubt.” In the end, it decided its doubts weren’t reasonable enough to spare James Hanratty the noose.

Meanwhile, another suspect from the same boarding-house, Peter Alphon, behaved extremely erratically in the run-up to Hanratty’s hanging, hounded Hanratty’s friend until the latter committed suicide, and then eventually (after the hanging) confessed outright. For Hanratty’s many advocates, Alphon looked an awful lot like reasonable doubt … or more.

This case was long a cause celebre for death penalty foes in the U.K. owing to its evidentiary shakiness; none of the other seven put to death in Great Britain after Hanratty were plausible innocents.


John Lennon and Yoko Ono commiserate with James Hanratty’s parents in 1969. (Photo by Express/Express/Getty Images, via here.)

In 2000, DNA tests conducted on Valerie Storie’s underwear and the handkerchief which wrapped the recovered gun finally offered the prospect of more certain forensic identification than had been available at the time of the trial. Those tests matched (pdf) James Hanratty’s DNA … and nobody else’s.

While this result has not resolved all controversy about the A6 murder case — witness this book-length forum discussion — nor ended the Hanratty family’s campaign for exoneration, it’s pretty well cut the legs from Hanratty’s actual-innocence argument. Whatever one can say about the original trial, it sure looks like Hanratty was the killer all along.

A few books about James Hanratty and the A6 case

* Feb. 8, 1962 testimony, as reported in the next day’s London Times.

** Aside from the inherent unreliability eyewitness testimony, Valerie Storie at one point picked an airman stand-in in a lineup; when she later identified Hanratty, it was not by his appearance but by his cockney accent.

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1951: Willie McGee

4 comments May 8th, 2011 Headsman

As of today, it is sixty years since the Laurel, Mississippi execution of Willie McGee for rape — a lightning rod for controversy over race, crime, and justice in one of the Cold War’s principal antagonists.

McGee died silent in the state’s portable electric chair, rigged up in the very courtroom of his trial, right in front of the box from whence his all-white jury had retired two and a half minutes before convicting him. Fifty or so observers were there with him — plus those of the hundreds of local residents milling around outside intrepid enough to scale a tree for an illicit view through the courthouse windows.*

(Given the setting, some sources call this a “public execution,” which is not technically correct. This courtroom tableau was actually a standard deployment for the mobile electric chair.)

But McGee’s own silence hardly muted global outrage: for years, appeals for McGee’s life had deluged Mississippi and the White House from Europe, the Soviet Union, and what was quaintly known as “Red China.”

Oh, yes. The Reds.

Willie McGee’s case popped out of backwoods obscurity when he got from the pinko Civil Rights Congress a leftist young attorney — future U.S. Congresswoman Bella Abzug.

Once it got out there, it became the Free Mumia case of the nascent civil rights movement and the nascent Cold War. Its appeal to communist countries and cadres only raised the hackles of American establishment types. This was a Negro raping a white housewife literally and metaphorically.


Author Jessica Mitford (The American Way of Death) campaigning to save Willie McGee’s life. William Faulkner, Albert Einstein, and Josephine Baker also publicly supported McGee.

Whether there actually was a literal rape is the enduring mystery — the enduring Rorschach blot — of the McGee case. The accused himself remained silent on the matter for years; eventually, he claimed that the two were having a consensual but forbidden interracial affair and that he had been brutalized into a confession.

McGee’s defenders believed that the “victim” herself initiated the affair, and

threatened to cry rape if he refused her flirtatious advances … McGee reluctantly went [along] with Hawkins, fearing the tragic consequences of turning her away. “People who don’t know the South don’t know what would have happened to Willie if he told her no,” [Willie’s wife] Rosalee told a friend. “Down South you tell a woman like that no, and she’ll cry rape anyway. So what else could Willie do?”

At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance

(In this version, the manipulative Hawkins executed the threat when her husband — who later witnessed McGee’s electrocution — found out. McGee’s cited reason for changing his story was the very plausible fear of lynching.)

A Laurel African-American who was then a child remembers being taken by his family to view the body, and impress upon him the lesson of its electrical burns: “Don’t mess with white girls.”

McGee’s persecutors considered all that miscegenation stuff so much subversive rubbish, a “revolting insinuation,” in the words of the Mississippi Supreme Court.**

And if at its apex the controversy generated more heat than light, its historical fade to embers has not sufficed to resolve the factual questions.

McGee has benefited from a recent rediscovery — one that indicates such memories of the McGee case as persevere in Laurel still divide starkly along racial lines.

Explore this case and its many resonances (without the Perry Mason big reveal) in Alex Heard’s 2010 The Eyes of Willie McGee (review); and, in a spellbinding NPR series on “My Grandfather’s Execution” by Bridgette McGee-Robinson, which is exactly what it sounds like. (Direct links to several Radio Diaries mp3 episodes can be found from the RSS feed here.)

Both were facilitated by a recording of execution-night radio news coverage fortuitously preserved by a young Hattiesburg reporter.

Book Cover

* New York Times, May 8, 1951.

** McGee did at least win two retrials in Mississippi; federal courts gave him short shrift, with anti-civil rights judge Sidney Mize — later memorable for fighting the legal rearguard against integrating Ole Miss — lecturing Abzug in a last-ditch appeal that McGee’s “guilt is plain” and that “courts ought to rise up and defend themselves.” (Source)

Taken as an obvious given: “actually guilty” or not, a defendant executed for rape in the American South is certainly a black man with a white accuser.

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1960: Caryl Chessman

9 comments May 2nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date fifty years ago, death row author and celebrity Caryl Chessman choked to death in San Quentin Prison’s gas chamber while the phone outside rang, too late, with his stay.

During his abnormally protracted* (for the times) 12 years fighting death, Chessman became the poster child for the anti-capital punishment cause and the most recognizable face on death row.

He was condemned as the “Red Light Bandit,” a Los Angeles criminal who would waylay cars in lovers’ lanes with police-like flashing red lights, then rob and, for some female victims, rape them. A career felon, Chessman denied his guilt to his death (he insisted that his signed confession was beaten out of him by the LAPD, which would not exactly have been out of character).

The prickly Chessman — “not generally regarded as a pleasant or socially minded fellow,” he conceded about himself — unwisely represented himself at trial, where the confession plus eyewitness testimony of Bandit victims were enough to convict him.

Not, however, of murder.

Instead, Chessman drew two death sentences under one of the country’s several draconian “Little Lindbergh” anti-kidnapping statutes, on the intriguing jurisprudential theory that the Red Light Bandit’s having dragged a rape victim several feet from her car constituted “kidnapping.”**

This astonishingly expansive reading only became more controversial when California repealed the kidnapping law in question in the 1950s. But the repeal was not retroactive.

That left Chessman to fight his sentence with a terrifyingly iron willpower, fending off eight execution dates in the process. The last of them came in February 1960, an 11th-hour reprieve as had been several others, when a two-month stay was granted ostensibly to protect the traveling President Eisenhower from some act of vengeful local retaliation from one of Chessman’s legions of international supporters.


Via.

A cat, I am told, has nine lives. If that is true, I know how a cat feels when, under the most hair-raising conditions, it has been obliged to expend the first eight of those lives in a chamber-of-horrors battle for survival, and the Grim Reaper gets it into his head that it will be great sport to try to bag the ninth. All pussy can do is spit. Homo sapiens can write books.

-Caryl Chessman

So Chessman wrote.

Fiction and nonfiction books, numerous articles — copping to a criminal life but insistently denying his involvement in the crimes that would doom him. For a time, prison officials seized his work and forbade his writing, and Chessman resorted to sacrificing his sleep to write illicitly by night and encode his work in putative “legal documents”. Bandit or not, the man had an indomitable spirit, and it won him worldwide attention and support.

Books by and about Caryl Chessman

And bandit or not, the Grim Reaper had a mind to take that ninth life.

One might have thought that for such a lightning-rod anti-death penalty case, the election of anti-death penalty Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown in 1958 would spell good news.

But “public opinion mobilized against Chessman,” writes Theodore Hamm in Rebel and a Cause: Caryl Chessman and the Politics of the Death Penalty in Postwar California, 1948-1974. That mobilization “marked the beginning of a larger popular backlash by the New Right against an essentially technocratic campaign to eliminate capital punishment in California.”

According to Hamm, Pat Brown claimed he would have been “impeached” if he had granted clemency to his uppity prisoner, leaving Chessman and his lefty backers† expediently triangulated by a Democratic governor. It’s a timeless story.

With executive clemency off the table, Chessman’s lawyer Rosalie Ashler was scrambling on the morning of the 10 a.m. execution to interest a judge in an appeal claiming that one Charles Terranova was the actual Red Light Bandit. The judge took his time reading the brief, and by the time his secretary placed a call to the death house (legend says, after once misdialing it), the cyanide pellets had already dropped.

Too late.

Which didn’t mean that Chessman was already dead — not by a long shot.

A reporter described what was transpiring inside the state’s killing chamber while Law and Ma Bell transacted their tardy business outside.

I thought Chessman must be dead but no, there was another agonizing period during which he choked on the gas. And again. And then again. There was a long period, another deep gasp. At the fourth such straining, Chessman’s head lolled in a half circle, coming forward so that he faced downward with his chin almost touching his chest. This must be the end. But the dying went on.

A deep gasp, his head came up for an instant, dropped forward again. After two or three deep breaths, which seemed something like sobs, a trembling set up throughout the body. Along the line of his broad shoulders, down the arms to his fingers, I could see the tremor run.

Then I saw his pale face grow suddenly paler, though I had not thought that it could be after his 12 years in prison. A little saliva came from his lips, spotted the white shirt that a condemned man wears for his last appearance. Even more color drained from his face and the furrows in his head smoothed out a little. And I knew he was dead.

Chessman would persist as a cultural touchstone for the issue of capital punishment for a generation.

Jim Minor, “Death Row” (1960)

Ronnie Hawkins, “The Ballad of Caryl Chessman” (1960)

Merle Haggard, “Sing Me Back Home” (1968)

(Though this tune about watching men taken to the gas chamber doesn’t explicitly reference Caryl Chessman, it was inspired by Haggard’s own prison stint where he met Chessman and experienced a “scared straight” moment.)

Neil Diamond, “Done Too Soon” (1970)

The Hates, “Do the Caryl Chessman” (1980)

In view of Chessman’s onetime celebrity, he’s an oddly forgotten character today: too strange an individual for easy approachability; too ethically indeterminate for convenient demagoguery; not sufficiently emblematic of any larger cause or community that would tend to his memory. His non-murder death sentence and method of execution seem anachronistic, no longer relevant.

Chessman surely was an avatar of the end to capital punishment that unfolded in the 1960s and 1970s, but as it went with his own case, so it went with his legacy: the simultaneous right-wing backlash ultimately rewrote the story. After all, the “liberal” governor too chicken to spare Chessman would go on to lose his office to Ronald Reagan.

Our day’s protagonist might have had a different place in the national consciousness, in stories with the phrase “as late as 1960,” had that interregnum of “abolition” Chessman presaged not turned out to be a false start.

I am not guilty. I am sure a future generation will listen.

-Caryl Chessman

* While 12 years between sentence and execution wouldn’t raise an eyebrow today (especially in California), Chessman at the time was thought to have set a record for the longest stint on death row in U.S. history.

** The legal weirdness didn’t stop with the kidnapping law. The official court reporter in Chessman’s case actually died with his trial transcription still in semi-legible shorthand. It was partially reconstructed (by a relative of prosecuting attorney J. Miller Leavy, who also won the death sentence against Barbara “I Want to Live!” Graham), but portions that could not be read were ballparked by the recollections of … prosecutor Leavy.

Appeals courts, of course, frequently have recourse to the original trial record to make various legal determinations; the evidentiary gap left by this second-hand-abridged-by-the-DA transcript was frequently protested by Chessman’s camp on appeal.

A cache of primary records from the case and its many appeals is lodged at this FBI Freedom of Information Act page.

† They weren’t exclusively leftists. William Buckley and Billy Graham both supported clemency for Chessman. Nor were they all political: the directors of the schlocky cult horror flick The Hypnotic Eye crassly pitched the headline-grabbing condemned con on a hypnotism promotional stunt, and ended up themselves being drawn into the case and believing Chessman was innocent.

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1849: Frederick and Marie Manning, a Dickensian scene

7 comments November 13th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1849, husband-and-wife murderers Frederick and Marie Manning (or Maria Manning) were publicly hanged together outside Horsemonger Lane Gaol in London.

An image of Marie Manning (nee Marie de Roux) from the Victorian popular press — from this romantic biography of Tolstoyan length available free from Google books.

The felonious pair — she a Swiss-born domestic; he a shifty laborer with a penchant for the inside job — lured to dinner in their Bermondsey home a wealthy friend who had designs on the redheaded knockout, then murdered him for his loot and stuffed the limed body under the floorboards. They were apprehended separately on the lam.

As is typical when a heartthrob femme fatale stands in the dock, a sensational trial of the “here today, gone tomorrow” variety ensued. The crime, nicknamed “the Bermondsey Horror” (here (pdf) is a book chapter-scale recounting), had each accusing the other, with the outcome usual for this site.

A massive, jeering throng turned out to see the two off (Mrs. Manning’s choice of black satin for the occasion is said to have caused the look to go out of fashion).

Among that crowd was Charles Dickens,* who took a break from working on David Copperfield to write The Times a letter published Nov. 14 demanding that executions be removed within prison walls on account of the unedifying conduct of the spectators.

Sir — I was a witness of the execution at Horsemonger-lane this morning. I went there with the intention of observing the crowd gathered to behold it, and I had excellent opportunities of doing so, at intervals all through the night, and continuously from daybreak until after the spectacle was over.

I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun. The horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wretched murderers to it, faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks and language, of the assembled spectators. When I came upon the scene at midnight, the shrillness of the cries and howls that were raised from time to time, denoting that they came from a concourse of boys and girls already assembled in the best places, made my blood run cold. As the night went on, screeching, and laughing, and yelling in strong chorus of parodies on Negro melodies, with substitutions of “Mrs. Manning” for “Susannah,” and the like, were added to these. When the day dawned, thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians and vagabonds of every kind, flocked on to the ground, with every variety of offensive and foul behaviour. Fightings, faintings, whistlings, imitations of Punch, brutal jokes, tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight when swooning women were dragged out of the crowd by the police with their dresses disordered, gave a new zest to the general entertainment. When the sun rose brightly — as it did — it gilded thousands upon thousands of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious in their brutal mirth or callousness, that a man had cause to feel ashamed of the shape he wore, and to shrink from himself, as fashioned in the image of the Devil. When the two miserable creatures who attracted all this ghastly sight about them were turned quivering into the air, there was no more emotion, no more pity, no more thought that two immortal souls had gone to judgment, no more restraint in any of the previous obscenities, than if the name of Christ had never been heard in this world, and there were no belief among men but that they perished like the beasts.

… I am solemnly convinced that nothing that ingenuity could devise to be done in this city, in the same compass of time, could work such ruin as one public execution, and I stand astounded and appalled by the wickedness it exhibits. I do not believe that any community can prosper where such a scene of horror and demoralization as was enacted this morning outside Horsemonger-lane Gaol is presented at the very doors of good citizens, and is passed by, unknown or forgotten.

Dickens would base a French maid named Mademoiselle Hortense in his next novel, Bleak House on Marie Manning.

This question of public as opposed to private hangings was a lively debate at the time, and Dickens’s view was hardly uncontested. A letter in response from one F.B. Head of Oxenton countered thus:

The merciful object of every punishment which the law inflicts is not so much to revenge the past crime as to prevent its recurrence. Now, Mrs. Manning’s last moments clearly explain, or rather indisputably prove, the benefit which society practically derives from a public execution. … as for a few fleeting moments she stood, with bandaged eyes, beneath the gibbet, how unanswerably did the picture mutely expound the terror which the wicked very naturally have of being publicly hanged before the scum and refuse of society! “The whistlings — the imitations of Punch — the brutal jokes and indecent delight of the thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians and vagabonds,” so graphically described by Mr. Charles Dickens were — by her own showing — not only the most fearful portion of her sentence but, under Providence, these coarse ingredients may possibly have effected that momentary repentance which the mild but fervent exhortations of the chaplain had failed to produce.

But, besides the impolicy of divesting the death by law of a murderer of the most effective portion of its terrors, there are, Sir, I submit, higher and infinitely more important reasons, which make it our bounden duty to require that every criminal who suffers death should be executed in public.

So long as it shall be deemed advisable by us, by laws divine as well as human, to deprive the murderer of his life, the whole process of his trial, ending in an act of such awful responsiblity, ought to be performed in open day, in order that the community may at all events clearly see what it is they are doing — what it is they have done. The purple hands of the wretched sufferer sufficiently explain what the white nightcap hypocritically conceals, namely, the dreadful act that has been performed; and, although thieves and prostitutes may ridicule the convulsions they witness, there will, it is to be hoped, in a free country and with a free press, always be found among an English crowd some one fellow-creature possessing the kindly feelings of Mr. Charles Dickens, who, should he see sufficient reasons for doing so, will not only call upon the country most seriously to consider whether the punishment he delineates has not exceeded the offence, but, as an honest witness, will condemn and expose any unnecessary harshness or cruelty that may have accompanied it.”

Even the legendary British humor magazine Punch weighed in, with a famous cartoon skewering the mob who turned up for public hangings.**


“The Great Moral Lesson at Horsemonger Lane Gaol”, Punch magazine’s rendition of the Mannings’ execution — turning its gaze not on the scaffold but on the unruly crowd beneath it. It comes with a poem.

Public executions would continue in England until 1868.

* Not the only literary big wheel in the crowd: Herman Melville also checked it out. No indication they bumped into each other, and no surprise: the crowd was so huge that at least one spectator was crushed to death against a police barricade. (As reported by Hanging in the Balance: A History of the Abolition of Capital Punishment in Britain, which numbers the onlookers at 30,000 and claims 2.5 million execution broadsheets were sold.)

** According to Dickens and Crime, Dickens actually observed the hanging with the Punch cartoonist who sketched “The Great Moral Lesson” (the two went in together to rent out a well-placed roof “for the extremely moderate sum of Ten Guineas”). That artist, John Leech, had illustrated Dickens’ A Christmas Carol a few years before.

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1839: Sebastien-Benoit Peytel, notwithstanding Balzac

1 comment October 28th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1839, Honore de Balzac’s crusade to save a condemned man got the chop.

Sebastien-Benoit Peytel was a notary and minor journalist death-sentenced that August for murdering his wife and their servant, one of those countless local outrages whose passing notice flies before the years.

Driven by sentimentality or opportunism or literary conceit — but with a genuine sense of aggrieved justice — the French writer Balzac, who had met Peytel, took up his pen on the condemned man’s behalf.

I am extremely agitated by a horrible case, the case of Peytel. I have seen this poor fellow three times. He is condemned; I start in two hours for Bourg.

Blowing through 10,000 francs of his own money on travel and investigation, Balzac could never make the case to the public as compellingly as it evidently appeared to him.

The English writer William Thackeray was then abroad in Paris, and if we are to credit his more measured defense of Peytel,* Balzac was counterproductive to his cause.

Perhaps Monsieur de Balzac helped to smother what little sparks of interest might still have remained for the murderous notary. Balzac put forward a letter in his favor, so very long, so very dull, so very pompous, promising so much, and performing so little, that the Parisian public gave up Peytel and his case altogether.

Thackeray’s own (yawn) account won’t bring the rhetoricians out of their seats. Conniving Frenchmen: fresh take.

I am not going to entertain you with any sentimental lamentations for this scoundrel’s fate, or to declare my belief in his innocence, as Monsieur de Balzac has done. As far as moral conviction can go, the man’s guilt is pretty clearly brought home to him. But … [i] t is a serious privilege, God knows, that society takes upon itself, at any time, to deprive one of God’s creatures of existence. But when the slightest doubt remains, what a tremendous risk does it incur! In England, thank heaven, the law is more wise and more merciful: an English jury would never have taken a man’s blood upon such testimony: an English judge and Crown advocate would never have acted as these Frenchmen have done; the latter inflaming the public mind by exaggerated appeals to their passions: the former seeking, in every way, to draw confessions from the prisoner, to perplex and confound him, to do away, by fierce cross-questioning and bitter remarks from the bench, with any effect that his testimony might have on the jury.

[Y]ou may see how easy a thing it is for a man’s life to be talked away in France, if ever he should happen to fall under the suspicion of a crime.

Eventually, he pivots from Peytel’s execution this date to state a more general argument against the death penalty, at least in its public form.

Down goes the axe; the poor wretch’s head rolls gasping into the basket; the spectators go home, pondering; and Mr. Executioner and his aides have, in half an hour, removed all traces of the august sacrifice, and of the altar on which it had been performed. Say, Mr. Briefless, do you think that any single person, meditating murder, would be deterred therefrom by beholding this — nay, a thousand more executions? It is not for moral improvement, as I take it, nor for opportunity to make appropriate remarks upon the punishment of crime, that people make a holiday of a killing-day, and leave their homes and occupations, to flock and witness the cutting off of a head. Do we crowd to see Mr. Macready in the new tragedy, or Mademoiselle Ellssler in her last new ballet and flesh-colored stockinnet pantaloons, out of a pure love of abstract poetry and beauty; or from a strong notion that we shall be excited, in different ways, by the actor and the dancer? And so, as we go to have a meal of fictitious terror at the tragedy, of something more questionable in the ballet, we go for a glut of blood to the execution. The lust is in every man’s nature, more or less. Did you ever witness a wrestling or boxing match? The first clatter of the kick on the shins, or the first drawing of blood, makes the stranger shudder a little; but soon the blood is his chief enjoyment, and he thirsts for it with a fierce delight. It is a fine grim pleasure that we have in seeing a man killed; and I make no doubt that the organs of destructiveness must begin to throb and swell as we witness the delightful savage spectacle.

Lost among literature’s towering oaks, our day’s humble shrub has a literary footnote of his own for authoring, in 1832, Physiologie de la Poire (“The Physiology of the Pear”), a protracted satire exploiting Louis-Philippe‘s reputation as “the Pear King.” (Contrary to some reports, Peytel does not appear to have invented this image.)

According to these antiquarians, the book contains the author’s “hilarious” predictions of the ways he will not die.

“Il ne sera pas guillotine‘ comme Bories, Raoulx …”

* Thackeray argued that the trial was badly done and the evidence insufficient for execution but expressly stopped well short of expressing confidence in Peytel’s innocence.

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1858: Marion Ira Stout, for loving his sister

3 comments October 22nd, 2008 Headsman

It’s the sesquicentennial of a then-sensational, now-forgotten hanging in Rochester, N.Y.

At dawn on December 20, 1857, the city had awoken to the discovery of a mangled corpse by the Genesee River’s High Falls … and more than enough evidence to have the corpse’s killers in hand by tea time.

Marion Ira Stout — he just went by Ira — had made a dog’s breakfast of the job, according to History of Rochester and Monroe County New York from the Earliest Historic Times to the Beginning of 1907.

[W]hen they got near the edge of the bank, Ira struck his victim a sudden blow with an iron mallet, smashing the skull and producing death instantly. Stout then threw the body over the precipice, supposing that it would fall into the river and be swept into the lake before sunrise, but instead of that it landed on a projecting ledge thirty feet below the upper level. Perceiving that there had been some failure in the matter, Ira started to go down a narrow path that led sideways along the cliff, but in the darkness he missed his footing and fell headlong, breaking his left arm in the descent and landing beside the corpse. Summoning all his remaining strength he was just able to push the body over the bank, when he sank in a dead faint. On recovering from which in a few minutes, he called to his sister, who was still above, to come and help him. When she started to do so, the bushes to which she clung gave way; she stumbled, broke her left wrist, and fell beside her prostrate brother. But it would not do to remain there, wretched as was their plight. So, after searching in vain for Ira’s spectacles, which they had to leave behind them, but taking with them the fatal mallet, they scrambled slowly and painfully up the bank and made their way laboriously to their home on Monroe Street.

In lieu of a last statement, Stout referred his audience to this writing, which was published posthumously. Courtesy of the New York State Historical Association Library, Cooperstown, N.Y.

Sure enough, the glasses were waiting near the victim for the cops to find come daylight.

How did Ira, his sister, and the late Charles Littles — the sister’s husband — find themselves in this macabre dance?

That’s the murky bit, though it’s fair to say there was some negative energy in the family.

Littles was a violent, jealous, philandering drunk. His wife Sarah seems like the classic abused spouse. Ira was an ex-con who seemingly had his life back together. Oh, and Ira and Sarah were sleeping together — professedly true in the literal sense (they were observed to sleep in bed together in their underthings), and possibly true in the Biblical sense.

Now, where in this tangled knot of incestuous desire, domestic violence, protectiveness, jealousy and intrigue lies the motive is less than self-evident, but Ira and Sarah most definitely schemed to lure Charles to his demise. (Charles was found with a club which he’d brought to clobber a lover of Sarah that he’d been told would make a rendezvous.)

Still, the condemned charmer garnered sympathy for having saved his sister from an abusive marriage; Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass rallied to his defense, and a female admirer smuggled him poison to cheat the hangman … which said admirer managed to end up ingesting herself, and barely survived.

Death got all ten-thumbed around Ira Stout, it seems. His hanging was no different.

The New York Times‘ archive has free access to the report of Stout’s execution, interestingly detailing the upward-jerking “sudden suspension” hanging apparatus in use for the job:

The gallows is the same which has always been in use in the jail — the rope, a hempen cord, alone being new. A weight of 186 pounds rests upon a swing door set in the garret floor of the jail. From this weight, the rope runs over two pulleys above, and the end of it drops through two doors, and nearly to the main floor of the jail. The weight falls about eight feet, jerking the slack end that distance. The halter attached to the main rope is a long distance below the main enginery of death, and the latter is not seen by the spectators or prisoner. The Sheriff stood at the foot of the stairs, some forty feet from the prisoner, and by a small cord pulled the latch which let the fatal weight fall.

But since this is Ira Stout, you know it didn’t come off without a hitch.

The death of the ill-fated man was not as sudden as could be desired. His struggles for eight or ten minutes were severe, and caused the spectators to turn away in disgust.

His neck was probably not dislocated, and he died by a slow process of strangulation. Doctors Hall, Avery, James and Miller stood near, and in eight minutes after the drop fell they said his pulse was as full as in life.

Sort of puts a grim twist on Stout’s own (fairly self-pitying) letters to the papers, in one of which he remarked, “I do not wish to show a cowardly tenacity for life, but I consider it my right and duty to live as long as I can.”

According to a feature story in the newsletter of Mount Hope Cemetery where Ira Stout takes his eternal rest, he might have tried to hang on quite a bit longer.

A rumor was current last night at a late hour that Stout was not dead, and that efforts were being made to resuscitate him by the use of galvanic batteries and other means sometimes employed for the restoration of persons supposed to be dead. How much truth there is in the rumors thus made we cannot say, as we have not taken pains to inquire at the house of Mrs. Stout.

No surprise, that didn’t work either.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New York,Sex,USA

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