1876: Louis Thomas, gallows builder

1 comment April 28th, 2020 Headsman

This musing on the torments for condemned prisoners of seeing their own rickety gallows put up in their own prison yard comes via Ken Leyton-Brown’s The Practice of Execution in Canada … and culminates with a Winnipeg execution that took place on April 28, 1876.

In principle, hanging may be said to have begun when the procession arrived at the scaffold, at which point the hangman took control of proceedings, and to have ended with the death of the condemned. During what was supposed to be a brief time, the hangman was to perform a number of tasks. First, the condemned had to be positioned over the trap. In the years just after Confederation, this might be delayed while he made a short address to the assembled onlookers, but in later years, the address was rarely permitted. Second, the hangman would secure his ankles and sometimes his knees. Third, what was called a cap, but was actually a bag, was placed over his head, and the oose was put about his neck and tightened. And lastly, the trap would be released, allowing him to drop through the platform.

This seems a fairly simple set of operations, and it might be expected that hanging was generally quite straightforward, but in fact, problems could arise at every stage. The first of these sprang from the fact that hangings occurred at the prson where the condemned person had been held during trial. An inevitable consequence of this was that they took place in a large number of small facilities across the country, frequently in locations that had never conducted them before. This meant that the required apparatus had to be built from scratch, virtually always by people who lacked either plans or experience to guide them. Thus, predictably, it was not always a great success: a hastily erected scaffold might not work properly, and its construction could be unsettling, sometimes even cruel, to prisoners waiting to be hanged.

Even a hurriedly built gallows took some time to assemble because it had to be a substantial structure, able to meet the demands that would be placed upon it. It required a platform large enough to accommodate the various civic officials, one or more spiritual advisors, the hangman, and the condemned; it must include a trap door and a stout overhead beam; and it needed enough clearance underneath to allow for both the body to hang and the subsequent examination to ensure the death had occurred. None of this would be difficult for skilled carpenters, provided they had enough wood and nails, but the task did not necessarily appeal to them. Therefore, a gallows was often built to less than the desired standard, and on occasion this adversely affected its functioning. More serious, though, was that its construction meant for the condemned, and for everyone in the prison. It was a noisy project, and the sound of sawing and hammering, combined with the certain knowledge of what was being built and what would happen when it finished, preyed on people’s minds, especially, one supposes, on that of the condemned. Worse, they could sometimes see its manufacture, either from their cell or was they went for exercise, and could watch it take shape, knowng that they would die upon it. A Winnipeg Free Press discussion of the preparation of a scaffold for Philip Johnston and Frank Sullivan illustrates this well:

Reverberating through the precincts of the provincial jail today are the sounds of the hammer and saw and to the two men these sounds mean the beginning of the end of their existence. Formal announcement is expected today from Ottawa that no reprieve can be granted Frank Sullivan and Philip Johnson, the two men condemned to pay the extreme penalty of the law for the murder of Constable Snowden.

Yesterday’s word from Ottawa that John Stoike had been reprieved and the fact that no announcement was made in regard to a new trial for the other two men caused a start to be made on the erection of the scaffold. Unless Minister of Justice Doherty grants a stay of execution today in order to listen to a new witness the men will be executed at 7 o’clock Friday morning.

Ellis, the executioner, is expected to reach the city tomorrow. Last night the floor of the double scaffold had been constructed and the framework will be completed in time for a thorough test to be made by noon tomorrow.

A scaffold had to be a sturdy affair, and it was often left standing for long or short periods as a mute reminder to prisoners of what their future might hold if they were unlucky or did not mend their ways. Usually, though, the scaffold was taken apart after a hanging and the wood either salvaged or stored. A stored scaffold could be reassembled when next it was needed, a detail typically mentioned in newspaper accounts. The hanging of Louis Thomas in 1876 provides an example. In 1874 Joseph Michaud had been hanged at Winnipeg, and it appears that the scaffold had been dismantled and the pieces stored. Two years later, when Angus McIvor was executed, it was taken out of storage and reassembled. The scaffold was then left up, and four months later Thomas became the third person to die on it. The most macabre feature of this was that, while in jail, Thomas was required to help raise McIvor’s scaffold, all the while knowing that his life would probably end on the same apparatus.

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1982: Charles Brooks, Jr., the first by lethal injection

Add comment December 7th, 2018 Headsman

Besides being Pearl Harbor Day and Noam Chomsky Day, December 7 is a black-letter anniversary for capital punishment as the date in 1982 when the United States first executed a prisoner by means of lethal injection.

Charles Brooks, Jr. — who had by the time of his death converted to Islam and started going by Shareef Ahmad Abdul-Rahim — suffered the punishment in Texas for abducting and murdering a car lot mechanic. With an accomplice,* he had feigned interest in a test drive in order to steal the car, stuffing the mechanic in the trunk and then shooting him dead in a hotel room.

The “modern” U.S. death penalty era had just dawned with 1976’s Gregg v. Georgia decision affirming new procedures meant to reduce systemic arbitrariness — and the machinery was reawakening after a decade’s abeyance.

In the wake of the circus atmosphere surrounding the January 1977 firing squad execution of Gary Gilmore, the laboratories of democracy started casting about for killing technologies that were a little bit less … appalling.

“We had discussed what happened to Gary Gilmore,” former Oklahoma chief medical examiner Jay Chapman later recalled. “At that time we put animals to death more humanely than we did human beings — so the idea of using medical drugs seemed a much better alternative.”

This was not actually a new idea: proposals for a medicalized execution process had been floated as far back as the 1880s, when New York instead opted for a more Frankenstein vibe by inventing the electric chair. And the Third Reich ran a wholesale euthanasia program based on lethal injections.

But 1977 was the year that lethal injection was officially adopted as the lynchpin method for regular judicial executions. It happened in Oklahoma, and Chapman’s three-drug protocol — sodium thiopental (an anaesthetic), followed by pancuronium bromide (to stop breathing) and potassium chloride (to stop the heart) — became the standard execution procedure swiftly taken up by numerous other U.S. states in the ensuing years. As years have gone by, Chapman’s procedure has come under fire and supply bottlenecks have led various states to experiment with different drug cocktails; all the same, nearly 90% of modern U.S. executions have run through the needle.*

Texas was one early adopter, rolling in the gurney to displace its half-century-old electric chair. Its debut with Charlie Brooks was also Texas’s debut on the modern execution scene, and both novelties have had a lot of staying power since: every one of Texas’s many executions in the years since — 557 executions over 36 years as of this writing — has employed lethal injection.

* For up-to-date figures, check the Death Penalty Information Center’s executions database.

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1792: Three cadavers, to test the first guillotine

1 comment April 17th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1792, the French Revolution’s iconic execution machine made its quiet experimental debut on the grounds of a suburban Paris hospital.

For all the long and terrible shadow it would cast, the first guillotine was a ridiculous rush job — courtesy of a legislature too squeamish to deal in the particulars of the humane head-chopper it had insisted upon. A ghastly farce ensued, as detailed by Paul Friedland in his Seeing Justice Done: The Age of Spectacular Capital Punishment in France,* wherein during a matter of weeks in the spring of 1792 the thing was practically willed into existence by French physician Antoine Louis by virtue of being the one guy who was willing to get into the technical journals on the matter of crunching a heavy blade through a man’s spine.**

The invention would initially be known as a louisette or louison in his honor, before that moniker was supplanted by the surname of a different physician who had become known (derisively, at first) for proposing a mechanical beheading device: Joseph-Ignace Guillotin.

Lawmakers’ shyness stems as Friedland sees it from their ambivalence about the entire project of public executions with their unruly rabble, pornographically agape: in this courtly sketch of the proposed machine, even the executioner — and this behavior is explicit in its original caption — coyly averts his eyes as his sword-arm releases the blade.

It was on March 20, 1792 that Assembly’s Committee on Legislation authorized deploying the as-yet uninvented device and “almost immediately, there followed an urgent, almost frenzied effort to build a decapitating machine as quickly as possible.” Executions remained suspended in the interim but Louis worked with dispatch, and an efficient carpenter named Guidon,† and the device performed its first real execution a mere five weeks after the enabling legislation, on April 25.

This date was its dry run, courtesy of a few fresh cadavers at the Bicêtre Hospital. That facility’s chief surgeon, one Cullerier, was very happy to make Dr. Louis’s arrangements.

Sir,

You will find at Bicetre all the facilities that you desire for the trial of a machine that humanity cannot see without shuddering, but which justice and the welfare of society make necessary. I will keep the corpses of those unfortunates who die between today and Monday. I will arrange the amphitheater … [and if] the ceiling does not accommodate the height of the machine, I can make use of a little isolated courtyard situated next to the amphitheater. The honor that you are bestowing on the House of Bicetre, Sir, is a very nice gift that you are giving me, but it would be even more so if you wished to accept a simple and frugal meal, such as a bachelor can offer.

Several more VIPs multiplied the honor. Rejoining Friedland’s narrative,

On April 17 the first trial of the guillotine took place. On hand to witness the event were: Sanson, the executioner of Paris, along with his son and an aide; the carpenter who built the machine and his aides; and several members of the medical establishment including Drs. Louis, Cullerier, and Pierre Jean George Cabanis, the prominent physician and friend of Mirabeau. Reportedly also in attendance that day were several members of the National Assembly and last, but certainly not least, an individual who was both a politician and a physician: Dr. Guillotin himself. By all accounts the trial was a wonderful success. As Dr. Louis enthused in his report to [politician and intellectual Pierre-Louis] Roederer, the machine decapitated three cadavers “so neatly that one was astonished by the force and celerity of its action.” Dr. Cabanis would later describe the blade’s descent as having “severed the heads faster than one could see, and the bones were cleanly cut.”

The reports ring with awe, and well they might. For an Enlightenment audience that theretofore had known beheadings only via the error-prone action of an executioner’s muscle, it must have been a wondrous spectacle, a triumph of ingenuity and philosophy for a humane new age.

* Executed Today long ago interviewed Dr. Friedland about this book.

** A rival proposal called for automating death via a sort of proto-gas chamber: the executioner to “attach the condemned by the neck, feet, and hands behind the back [to a post on the scaffold], all of which he would cover or enclose in a kind of booth, 5 feet square, equipped with panes of glass on all four sides and with a tight-fitting cap on top … charcoal, sulfur, and other materials that cause asphyxiation could be introduced into the booth by means of an inverted funnel in such a way that the condemned would suffocate and expire instantaneously.” Yet another proposal called for a strangling machine.

† “Who charged 5,500 francs for it,” report the memoirs of the Sansons, which also notes that by way of experimentation, two of the cadavers were beheaded with the familiar-to-us oblique knife, and the third less satisfactorily with a crescent-shaped alternative.

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1990: Charles Coleman, the first lethal injection in Oklahoma

1 comment September 10th, 2015 Headsman

Despite our occasional predilection for the odd “literally executed today” post, this macabre chronicle has never really aspired to focus on our subject matter’s breaking-news beat.

Nonetheless, the landscape of the death penalty has evolved noticeably in the years since we launched on Halloween 2007. Executions are down in China, but up in Saudi Arabia and Iran; India has ended a long death penalty hiatus; Pakistan began, sustained, and dramatically repudiated a death penalty moratorium.

And in the United States, the prevailing execution method, lethal injection, has fallen under a barrage of legal and political challenges.

Like the guillotine, the electric chair, the gas chamber, and weirder contraptions, the prick of the needle had once been sold as a Solomonic compromise between the executioner and his critics: you still get to kill a guy, but now he doesn’t feel a thing. This time we really mean it!

Lethal injection got some run in the Nazi T-4 euthanasia program but was first approved for regular judicial executions by Oklahoma in 1977, and first used by Texas in 1982. Where gas and electricity transferred industrial technology to the death chamber, with great metal chairs and huge switches like Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, injection analogized medicine: silent and light, and so sterile that the technicians would hygienically swab the skin before they pushed in the death-dealing needle.

Most of all it was sterile for the viewers, who had occasionally been subjected under the other processes to nauseating botches: men who were supposed to be dying instantly instead thrashing wildly away, catching fire, gushing blood, or requiring jolt after jolt to finish off. The electric chair surely owes its iconic cultural position in part to its reputation for spectacular failures.

When capital punishment got its 1970s reboot, it only seemed natural to think about cleaning up the how along with the why. Nearly everyone now had the experience of anaesthetic; it was natural to think that you could just put a man down like the family dog and not have any mess to clean up afterwards.

“Being a former farmer and horse raiser, I know what it’s like to try to eliminate an injured horse by shooting him,” future president Ronald Reagan had said in proposing the technology while he was still governor of California in 1973. “Now you call the veterinarian and the vet gives it a shot and the horse goes to sleep. That’s it.”

As executions surged in the 1990s, lethal injection was thoroughly displacing America’s previous humane technologies to become the overwhelmingly predominant method.


Data via the Death Penalty Information Center’s executions database.

And the state of Oklahoma, which had been first with a lethal injection law back in ’77, finally started rolling out gurneys — when it put murder Charles Troy Coleman to death with the needle on September 10, 1990. It was Oklahoma’s first execution in 24 years.*

It was Oklahoma’s medical examiner Jay Chapman who had formulated the three-drug cocktail that for a long time comprised the definitive lethal injection protocol: the short-acting barbiturate sodium thiopental, followed by the paralytic drug pancuronium bromide, capped with potassium chloride to stop the heart. Why three drugs, Human Rights Watch later asked him? “Why not?” Chapman was not a pharmacologist and had little expertise with the drugs in question.

Nevertheless, his process “could not be construed as cruel and unusual punishment since it is merely the extreme of procedures done daily around the world for surgical procedures,” Chapman insisted when he proposed it. “It’s simply an extreme form of anesthesia.”

Extreme anaesthesia. Was it really?

Even at Coleman’s death, observers saw it differently.

“I saw him choke and gasp and struggle for air,” said Joe Ward, an investigator in the public defender’s office. “It looked like he was choking to death. He looked over … and mouthed the words, ‘I love you.’ Then he looked straight back up and started choking.” Reporter Art Cox, by contrast, viewed it as “a very easy death … a very cold death, very antiseptic.”

Oklahoma has executed well over 100 people since Charles Coleman but if anything the uncertainty about that “easy” and “antiseptic” death has only grown — in the Sooner state and elsewhere.

And the question has become quite urgent during the lifetime of this blog as political pressure on manufacturers has dried up the supply of sodium thiopental, forcing the many states using lethal injection to scramble for a variety of new drug sequences that are basically being invented on the fly and sussed out with live experimentation on the next death row prisoner in the queue.

Oklahoma’s version was to switch from sodium thiopental to pentobarbital; in January 2014, a man being executed with pentobarbital exclaimed, “I feel my whole body burning.”. Months later, the manufacturer of that drug also cut off the supply, unwilling to be party to the executions it facilitated.

So Oklahoma switched to a third anaesthetic, midazolam, a drug whose execution debut took place in Florida in 2013. The state has also tried to shield its suppliers from anti-death penalty campaigners with a secrecy law.

Proceeding on a mad catch-as-can basis, Oklahoma proceeded to horribly botch its midazolam executions, throwing its new procedure right back to the courts. Just this past June, a divided U.S. Supreme Court narrowly approved the continued use of its midazolam cocktail, which a dissenting justice savaged as “the chemical equivalent of being burned alive.”

It’s a story still being written before our eyes — a long quarter-century after Charles Coleman premiered Oklahoma’s modern era of executions on this date in 1990.

* The last previous execution in Oklahoma was that of James French in 1966.

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1581: James Douglas, Earl of Morton

Add comment June 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1581, James Douglas, the Earl of Morton was beheaded on the Maiden.

The fourth and last of little King James‘s regents, Morton was arguably the most able of the bunch and distinguished his span of authority by winning the raging civil war against James’s mother Mary.

Regent Morton had a reputation for avarice during his run in the 1570s. However, deriving as it does from his executive impingement on the treasures of courtiers and clans no less grasping than himself, that reputation probably ought to be taken with a grain of salt.


Rimshot

If nothing else, Regent Morton had the excuse of king and country. Sir Walter Scott, for one, favored this Red Douglas with a much more charitably statesmanlike gloss in The Monastery and The Abbott.

As one example, Morton irked divines by enforcing with a minimum of pious exceptions a pre-existing statute requiring a one-third cut of ecclesiastical revenues.

Likewise, he made an enemy of Lady Agnes Keith — the widow of the assassinated first regent — and her (subsequent) husband, the Earl of Argyll by forcing them to turn over crown jewels that were being held in their quote-unquote safekeeping.

In 1578, this Argyll kidnapped King James VI and induced the 12-year-old to declare his majority and dismiss the Earl of Morton. Argyll landed a Chancellorship out of the deal: Morton — well, you know. He would eventually be accused, 14 years’ belatedly but not inaccurately, of complicity in the 1567 murder of Lord Darnley.

Argyll in the end lost his head to that distinctive Scottish proto-guillotine known as the Maiden. Though the apparatus actually dates back to 1564,* a legend as moralistic as it is specious holds that the Regent Morton was himself the man who ordered construction of the device that would eventually end his own life. Sir Walter could hardly be asked to resist that kind of material:

“Look you, Adam, I were loth to terrify you, and you just come from a journey; but I promise you, Earl Morton hath brought you down a Maiden from Halifax, you never saw the like of her — and she’ll clasp you round the neck, and your head will remain in her arms.”

“Pshaw!” answered Adam, “I am too old to have my head turned by any maiden of them all. I know my Lord of Morton will go as far for a buxom lass as anyone; but what the devil took him to Halifax all the way? and if he has got a gamester there, what hath she to do with my head?”

“Much, much!” answered Michael. “Herod’s daughter, who did such execution with her foot and ankle, danced not men’s heads off more cleanly than this maiden of Morton. ‘Tis an axe, man, — an axe which falls of itself like a sash window, and never gives the headsmen the trouble to wield it.”

“By my faith, a shrewd device,” said Woodcock; “heaven keep us free on’t!”

-Sir Walter Scott, The Abbott

When next in Edinburgh, quaff Scots engineering acumen with the friendly backpackers crashing at the High Street Hostel — the glorious stone town house that was once Regent Morton’s very own crib.


By Kim Traynor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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1307: Murcod Ballagh, beheaded

Add comment April 1st, 2015 Headsman

“In the yeare 1307 the first of Aprill,” Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland records, “Murcod Ballagh was beheaded neere to Merton by sir David Caunton knight.”

First published in 1577, this document — heavily mined by Shakespeare for his histories — is silent as to the further particulars of the beheading. But the accompanying image depicting the execution surprisingly presents a guillotine-like device being employed for the task.

As John Wilson Croker’s History of the Guillotine observes, this one illustration 270 years after the fact scarcely suffices to establish that a guillotine precursor really was in use in Ireland in the first years of the 14th century. Were that the case, this might be the earliest quote-unquote “documented” execution by a beheading-machine.

(Executions in Halifax, Scotland, can be sourced as early as the 1280s, but it is not known if the famed Halifax Gibbet was in use at that early date.)

But it does at least establish the authors’ awareness of such technology — perhaps by familiarity with the Scottish Maiden, or perhaps by having caught wind of similar gadgets in France and Italy.

“This mode of execution was common on the Continent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,” Croker concludes with a bit of overstatement. “And yet had passed into such entire desuetude and oblivion as to have appeared as a perfect novelty when proposed by Dr. Guillotin.”

“This is certainly a striking illustration of the proverb that there is nothing new under the sun.”

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1793: A Lyon mitraillade

Add comment December 14th, 2014 Headsman

The executions on December 14, 1793 illustrated above (image from here) date to Revolutionary France’s violent suppression that month of the France’s second city for its resistance to Jacobin power.

We have alluded before to this bloody interim, led by the National Convention‘s ruthless emissaries Collot d’Herbois and Joseph Fouche — two men well aware that any appearance of undue leniency in the chastisement of Lyons might send their own heads under the guillotine back in Paris.

To accomplish such an urgent task, they dispensed with the mere guillotine and rolled out a new death-dealing technology: the mitraillades, or execution by grapeshot.*

This bizarre killing method involved lining up the prisoners to be executed — scores or hundreds at once at the height of the Lyons crackdown — before the mouths of cannon loaded with anti-infantry balls. When the cannons fired, they mowed down the victims en masse. And then, gloated the executioners’ Convention ally Barere, “the corpses of the rebellious Lyonese, floating down the Rhone, would warn the citizens of Toulon of their coming fate!”

Now, grapeshot is an outstanding weapon in the right spot, but it is not at all certain to kill its targets. On the battlefield, mangled survivors were just about as good as dead bodies when it came to mauling the soldiery.

But executioners usually aim for something a bit more predictably lethal. The mitraillades could not offer anything close to dependable, near-universal slaughter … and so the horror of the artillery discharge was followed (as one sees in the drawing above) by the horror of the many stunned and injured survivors of the cannonade being finished one by one at close quarters with muskets and bayonets. Though a single coup de grace might count as a mercy, a hundred at once made for simple butchery.

The mitraillade did such brutal work that the national government soon ordered its Lyons deputation to lay off the innovation and return to the standard device for a Republican execution — the guillotine.

* Present-day Francophones will most likely associate the word mitrailleuse with the machine gun. That term dates to a a 19th century “volley gun” capable of spitting out 25 rounds from a cluster of rifle barrel activated by a single crank; for obvious reasons, this weapon inherited its name from the French word for grapeshot, mitraillade.

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1913: Andriza Mircovich, by a shooting-machine

Add comment May 14th, 2014 Headsman

101 years ago today, a Serbian immigrant was shot for murder in Carson City, Nevada.

It was an ordinary murder, by an ordinary man: his cousin died in a mining fire in 1911, and Andriza (or Andrija) Mircovich, feeling he got stiffed on the resulting inheritance, stabbed to death the probate attorney (a fellow South Slav named Gregorovich).

The execution, however, was extraordinary — and has never in history been repeated.

The march of science had lately made possible whole new methods of execution heretofore uncontemplated — like electricity and poison gas. At the same time, mechanical engineering had improved old standbys like beheading and hanging from slipshod, error-prone affairs to efficient operations worthy of an age of industry.

Somewhere between those categories lies the firing squad. Firearms, of course, were new technology relative to the noose and a big ol’ axe, but we do find executions by shooting back to the 17th century at least.

Though the guns themselves had been updated, Nevada was forced by circumstances to do for firing squads what Dr. Guillotin had done for headsmen.

Nevada law at the time allowed inmates to choose between hanging and shooting. The state had all the accoutrement for the former, but it hadn’t ever conducted one of the latter. When Mircovich insisted on being shot, and prison officials couldn’t find people willing to pull the trigger, Nevada actually built a “shooting gallery of steel” — an entire contraption to automate the lethal fusillade.


Image from this history of Nevada capital punishment.

The 1,000-pound gallery of steel, whose arrival caused the prison warden George Cowing to resign in horror,* consisted of a shed with three protruding mounted rifles, which would be individually sighted on the heart of the restrained prisoner and fired when guards cut a string to release a spring mechanism.

In a macabre Rube Goldberg parody, it was improved for the consciences of the guards by having three strings that would be simultaneously cut, only one of which actually triggered the gallery. A redundant layer of plausible deniability was added, since each of the three guards had aimed only one of the three rifles, by loading only two of the three guns with live ammunition.

Mircovich went to his death still fulminating profanely against the judge who condemned him and the injustice of it all. The scene, it must be said, was not exactly the finest hour in penal history.

But the device itself? It worked perfectly, killing Mircovich nigh-instantly with two balls straight to his heart.


From the Los Angeles Times, May 15, 1913.

Nevada got rid of this inconvenient execution option not long after, and Mircovich remains the only human being put to death by shooting (whether by human hands or mechanical ones) in the Silver State’s history. The guns from this weird artifact currently reside at the Nevada State Museum, Carson City; the scaffolding that once surrounded them is in some aircraft carrier or tank, having been donated as scrap metal during World War II.

* Cowing was replaced by former governor Denver Dickerson, who would later oversee Nevada’s pathbreaking gas chamber debut. Digression: Dickerson’s turn as governor had been notable for his arranging a boxing match in Reno between the black champion Jack Johnson and the “great white hope” James Jeffries, which resulted in a legendary Johnson victory and — another sign of the era’s dismal condition of race relations — a nationwide wave of racial violence.

According to Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, Dickerson was the kind of guy who could see past skin color well enough to make bank wagering on Johnson.

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1894: John Cronin, by an automated gallows

1 comment December 18th, 2013 Headsman

From the Dec. 18, 1894 Atchison (Ks.) Daily:

HARTFORD, Conn., Dec. 18. — John Cronin was hanged here at 1:00 o’clock this morning.

The execution of Cronin was especially interesting, being the first hanging in this state under the law passed by the last general assembly and the first trial of an automatic gallows in the east.

This last is the idea of Warden Woodbridge. Aided by James H. Rabbett, a forger, now serving a two and one-half years’ sentence, the warden evolved what he considers an improvement on the hanging machine in use in Colorado.

Small shot has been substituted for water in the operation of the lever which releases the weight and an arrangement made whereby the execution may be stayed at any moment.

The compartment in which the shot are confined resembles an hour glass and the mechanism is thoroughly under the warden’s control. The shot was started in motion by the movement of a lever, and another lever would have enabled the warden to have stopped it at any time. The progress of the shot and the approaching moment when the weight would be released is indicated on a dial resembling a clock.

When Cronin had been seated in the chair and made fast, a signal from the executioner indicated to the man who had charge of the lever that he was ready. The machinery was then set in motion, there being no visible evidence of anything unusual.

The adjustment of the machine was made so perfect that the weight of 306 pounds made no perceptible noise as it was released and fell back to the ground beneath. Instantaneously the victim was jerked into the air, falling backward to within 2 feet of the floor.

One of the principal improvements over the Colorado appliance is the fact that the prisoner is not his own executioner. With the original machine,* when the prisoner was placed on the chair it released a lever which started the mechanism and in this way the man was practically forced to commit suicide.

John Cronin’s crime was the murder of Albert Skinner, at South Windsor, October 6, 1893. He was prompted by revenge for some fancied grievance. He had been boarding with Skinner for several months, but finally was ordered away. A fight ensued at the time and Cronin then went on a protracted debauch. The morning of the murder he went to Skinner’s house and meeting Skinner in the yard immediately shot him, inflicting a fatal wound.

* Developed to hang Dr. T. Thatcher Graves but to my knowledge never actually used.

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1888: One Newfoundland, for Thomas Alva Edison

5 comments July 30th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1888, a 76-pound Newfoundland was electrocuted before a crowd in a lecture hall at the Columbia College School of Mines (now the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University) in New York City. The pooch was an innocent bystander who’d fallen victim to the War of Currents between Thomas Edison and his electrical adversary, George Westinghouse.

Edison was a proponent of direct current (DC), where the electricity flows in one direction from source to receiver. Westinghouse, one the other hand, favored AC, alternating current, where the electrical current will reverse direction from time to time and electricity doesn’t flow from the source to the receiver so much as in between them.

In the late 1800s, as electrical systems were spreading all over America, Westinghouse’s company and Edison’s company were duking it out as to which system would prevail over the other. Westinghouse’s AC, being far more efficient, was usually the system of choice for providing electricity to houses, businesses and streetlights, which was where most of the profits lay. (DC was better for things like batteries.)

Desperate to hold onto eroding market share, Edison saw an opportunity to do Westinghouse dirty when New York State adopted the electric chair as their means of execution. Some notable botches had rendered hanging unpalatable, but industrial electrification was still such a newfangled concept that at the time the law was passed, the chair had yet to be built. Edison figured that a propaganda blitz to make sure the device used AC would help convince the public that the rival current was too deadly to be used in private homes and city streets.

Edison hired Harold P. Brown to help him in his campaign to prove AC’s dangerousness: which brings us to this day’s event, as described in Craig Brandon’s detailed book The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History.

In private experiments, Brown and his assistant, Arthur E. Kennelly, “attached electrodes to dozens of stray dogs and tried various combinations of volts and amperes before announcing that it took only 300 volts of alternating current to kill a dog, but 1,000 volts of direct current.”


Seriously?*

Satisfied that they were ready to go public, Brown scheduled a demonstration at Columbia on July 30, inviting electricians, scientists and the press to watch. Kennelly and Dr. Frederick Peterson, a member of the Medico-Legal Society of New York, assisted him.

Book CoverBrown opened his demonstration by insisting that he had been drawn into the controversy not out of any self-interest but because of his concern that alternating current was too dangerous to be used on city streets. He denied charges that he was in the pay of any electric light company and had “no financial or commercial interest” in the results of his experiments. Of course, the fact that he was using Edison’s equipment and was assisted by Edison’s chief of research spoke of itself.

Brown then brought in the first experimental subject: a 76-pound Newfoundland dog in a metal cage. The dog had been muzzled and had electrodes attached to one foreleg and one hind leg.


SERIOUSLY?! (cc) image from DanDee Shots.

Brown connected the dog to the DC generator that Edison had loaned him and starting with 300 volts gradually increased the voltage to 1,000 volts. As the voltage increased, the observers noted, the dog’s yelping increased but it remained alive.

Having proven the safety of DC current, Brown disconnected the suffering animal from the DC generator and connected it to the AC generator with the remark, “We shall make him feel better.” (No word on whether he was twirling his mustache as he said so.)

Brown turned the voltage to 330, and the dog collapsed and died instantly.

The viewers were impressed, but Brown wasn’t done yet and brought in another dog. He said he was going to connect this one to the AC generator first. This, he said, would prove that the animal didn’t die because the shocks from the DC generator had weakened it.

Before he could accomplish this, however, an agent from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals arrived and asked Brown to stop the experiment and spare the poor dog’s life. It took some convincing, but in the end Brown agreed to stay of execution. The second dog would die another day.

Although the regular newspapers loved this bit of theater, the trade magazine The Electrical Engineer claimed the experiment was unscientific. The magazine offered a terrible little poem about the proceedings:

The dog stood in the lattice box,
The wires around him led,
He knew not that electric shocks
So soon would strike him dead…
At last there came a deadly bolt,
The dog, O where was he?
Three hundred alternating volts,
Had burst his vicerae

Although the ASPCA might have brought his first experiment to a premature end, Brown was not deterred. He toured New York State for months, giving dog and pony shows before fascinated crowds, where he would electrocute cats, cows, calves, and well, dogs and ponies, using both direct and alternating currents. He paid young boys twenty-five cents apiece to round up stray animals to get fried.

The public watched — but wasn’t fooled, and continued to use alternating currents. Even the 1890 execution of William Kemmler in New York’s brand-spanking new AC electric chair failed to convince anyone that they were going to drop dead if they installed AC electricity in their homes. (Brown helped design the chair.) AC won the War of Currents hands-down.

The poor Newfoundland, having laid down its small life for the greater prosperity of Edison’s investors, died, unmourned, in vain.

* This shock-a-dog diagram is from “Death-Current Experiments at the Edison Laboratory,” an article that Harold Brown published in the New York Medico-Legal Journal, vol. 6, issue 4. He remarks therein, just by the by, on alternating current’s “life-destroying qualities,” and how the august committee carrying out these electrocutions “were not a little startled when I told of them results of recent tests for leakage made by me not long since on the circuit of one of the alternating current stations in this city.” Brown was, he said, indebted to “Mr. Thos. A. Edison, through whose kindness I was allowed the use of apparatus.”

As noted, the thorough Brown put said apparatus to use on a variety of fauna. In the interest of science, he also includes in this same article diagrams on the electrocution of a calf and a horse; we enclose them here for your edification.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Animals,Borderline "Executions",Electrocuted,Guest Writers,History,Innocent Bystanders,New York,No Formal Charge,Other Voices,Pelf,Public Executions,USA

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