1865: Francis Johnson (Francis Harper), lynch survivor

Add comment December 22nd, 2017 Headsman

From the Chicago Republican, Dec. 23, 1865:

Special Despatch to the Chicago Republican.

WATSEKA, Iroquois Co., Ill. Dec. 22.

Francis Johnson, alias Francis Harper, was executed at Watseka, Iroquois county, Ill., on Dec. 22, for the murder of Dr. W. Nelson, of Muncie.

THE MURDER.

The murder was committed on the night of Nov. 2, about half a mile south of Gilman station, on the Illinois Central railroad. Harper and Nelson got off the passenger train at Gilman, and started on foot for Onarga. When about half a mile south of the station Harper drew a pistol and shot Nelson through the head but not so as to cause instant death. When he saw the pistol-shot did not kill Nelson, Harper sprang upon him and choked him to death; then robbed the boy of a few dollars in postal currency, and took the murdered man’s clothes, with the marks of blood upon them; also his valise, watch, and ring — all of which were marked with the owner’s name. Harper went to Onarga; had a tailor mend the torn and bloody coat, took the cars for Chicago, and was arrested on the train, through the agency of a telegraphic message to the conductor, who found the property in his possession. Harper was taken back to Gilman, and hung three times by a mob, but was cut down by Sheriff Martin before quite dead. At last the Sheriff got him away, and he was taken to Kankakee. He was brought from there and tried at the last term of the Circuit Court, convicted, and sentenced to be hanged on the 22d inst.

HIS TRIAL AND CONVICTION.

The evidence upon which Harper was convicted of the murder of Nelson was purely circumstantial, but conclusive. It was proven that he had hired a revolver in Kankakee, and furthermore that he had accompanied the murdered man on the cars of the Illinois Central railroad to Gilman, at which station they left the train together. It was also substantiated on the trial that he had been boarding with him at the Murray House at Kankakee, nearly a week prior to the time; and when Nelson expressed the determination to go to Gilman, Harper immediately announced his intention of accompanying him. After getting off from the train there, Harper asked Nelson to accompany him to the house of a friend, which invitation was accepted, and the two proceeded down the track together. This invitation on the part of Harper was merely a ruse to decoy his victim into some lonely spot; and, when they had proceeded about one hundred rods, Harper, stepping behind Wilson, drew his revolver, and shot him, as detailed above.

All these details were fully substantiated upon the trial; but in addition to them, Harper, when he was arrested, had upon his person Nelson’s coat, torn and covered with blood; the knife, watch, clothing, satchel and box of the deceased; and upon the latter were Nelson’s initials. After the case was given to the jury, they were out but a short time, when they returned a verdict of “guilty.”

EFFORTS AT COMMUTATION.

Harper was not without relatives, and, upon the announcement to them that he had been sentenced to death, they addressed themselves assiduously to the work of endeavoring to secure for him a reprieve, or commutation of the sentence to imprisonment for life. Gov. Oglesby, however, refused to grant their request; and since neither Judge Starr, who presided at the trial, nor the District Attorney, could be induced to add their signatures to a petition in his behalf, it became evident that the murderer must pay the full penalty of his crime.

WANT OF SYMPATHY.

To say that not a particle of sympathy was manifested by the people of Iroquois county in behalf of Harper, would be no more than speaking the honest truth. We have already stated that so outraged were the people against him at the time he was held in custody at Gilman that he was taken from the officers and hanged by the summary process of Lynch law, but after a desperate effort by the sheriff and his officers, was rescued from the hands of the mob and lodged in jail at Kankakee. Throughout his confinement, during his trial, and after his sentence, there was scarce an individual to be found who expressed a regret at the terrible fate which awaited him, or who entertained a doubt of his guilt.

DENIES HIS GUILT.

The prisoner, throughout the time that intervened between his sentence and Friday of last week, strenuously denied his guilt. No persuasion or entreaty could move him, and no assertion on the part of those who visited him in his cell, that they believed him to be the murderer of Nelson, seemed to move him in the least. To every interrogatory he gave the stereotyped response that he was innocent and knew nothing about the murder, though at times he seemed very humble, and shed tears when conversing with visitors upon the subject of the murder and his approaching doom. To those who were familiar with him he seemed to be borne up by some hope of reprieve, faint though it was, and an escape from the death to which the law had condemned him.

HIS CONFESSION.

One week ago today, Harper confessed his guilt. It was not, however, until assured that all hope of escape from death upon the gallows was out of the question and that all, including his own counsel, believed him to be guilty, that he unburdened his soul of the great secret it bore and escaped the additional sin of going before his Maker with a lie upon his lips. He had been visited in the morning by Dr. Thayer, who earnestly urged him to reflect upon the perilous position he occupied and besought him to make a full confession of his guilt. Bursting into tears, he confessed that he did shoot Nelson on the night of Nov. 2, between Gilman and Onarga. He also confessed that he hired a revolver in Kankakee for that purpose, and that he intended to kill him when they left that place together. He said that the shot did not kill Nelson; that he had a hand-to-hand struggle with him, and that he was not dead when he left him. He further said that he got his own coat bloody, and that he would have given his own life if he could have called Nelson back to life after he had done the fatal deed. He further confessed that he changed his name from Harper to Johnson, and he deserted from the army. The prisoner also said that he had felt for some time a desire to unburden his heart and acknowledge his guilt to his fellow-men, before his God, and seek his pardon. He said that he did not commit the murder for money and reward, but because he was in an unhappy state of mind, which drove him to desperation.

NOT GUILTY OF OTHER CRIMES.

The prisoner denied having participated in or committed other crimes. When asked if he knew anything about the mysterious disappearance of De Los Carrier, he replied that as God was his witness he knew nothing about him; that Nelson was the only man he ever murdered. In this statement the prisoner evinced much candor and honesty, and many believed he was speaking the truth.

THE EXECUTION.

The sentence of the law was carried into effect today, and Harper was executed. Since his sentence he has been confined in the jail at Kankakee, from whence he was brought to this place last evening. During the past few days he has exhibited signs of sincere penitence, and expressed the hope that God had pardoned his terrible sin. In the transit from Kankakee to this place he was far more cheerful than it was expected he would be, and conversed freely with those in attendance upon him.

PREPARATION FOR THE EXECUTION.

Sheriff Martin had made all possible preparation for the execution of the condemned, and, notwithstanding the oft-repeated threats on the part of the people in this locality that the execution should be a public one, it was conducted in a strictly private manner. He called to his assistance a guard of fifteen veteran soldiers, who were stationed around the enclosure in which the execution took place, and effectually guarded the execution from any interruption. The arrangements of this officer were made in a most judicious manner, and the result proved them to be every way successful.

THE GALLOWS.

The arrangement of the instrument of death was different from that ordinarily used, in that the culprit was suddenly jerked up instead of being dropped through a trap, as is ordinarily the custom. A heavy weight attached to a rope passing over a pully, was held by a cord in such a manner that, when this cord was cut, the weight dropped six feet, jerking the unfortunate man suddenly from his standing place into the air. The drop was frequently tested, and found to work smoothly prior to the execution.

HIS LAST NIGHT ON EARTH.

Harper passed his last evening upon earth in devotional exercises. He manifested little nervousness, but read his Bible and said his prayers calmly and quietly, and with hardly the air of one who knew he was to die upon the morrow. He also conversed freely with his spiritual advisers, and sometimes alluded to his approaching end calmly and seemingly without fear. At a late hour prayer was offered in his behalf by those in attendance, in which he joined, and soon after he retired to rest, and during the greater portion apparently slept soundly and quietly.

THIS MORNING

He arose very early, and when asked how he had passed the night, replied that he had rested well. Breakfast was brought him, of which he partook with a good relish, and afterward engaged in conversation with Dr. Thayer, who had so often visited him during his confinement. In this interview he talked freely and again expressed the hope that his sins had been forgiven. The sacrament was administered to him by clergymen who were in attendance at ten minutes before eleven o’clock, and at its conclusion he was directed to prepare himself to proceed to the place of execution. He signified his readiness to accompany the officers, and with them walked forth to die.

AT THE GALLOWS.

Arriving within the enclosure, within which the scaffold had been erected, he was permitted to warm himself for the day was bitter cold, and upon being asked if he had anything to say, replied in the affirmative. In a few words, earnestly spoken, he urged the spectators to take warning by his fate, and entreated them to beware of bad company, which he said had taught him habits which led him to the commission of the terrible crime for which he was about to die. He again acknowledged his guilt and the justice of his punishment, and at the conclusion of his remarks was conducted to the scaffold.

Harper stepped upon the gallows at 11:05 , and was immediately dressed in the shroud prepared for him. He then sang one verse of a hymn in a clear voice, the noose was adjusted around his neck, and the cap was drawn over his face and fastened. At 11:15 the drop fell, and Francis Harper had paid the penalty of his earthly crimes.

He was jerked up six feet, but fell back two feet. The neck was not broken. A few contortions, and he was pronounced dead at 11:19 by the attending physicians. At 11:30 the body was taken down, and will be forwarded to his father at Effingham, Ill. Everything passed off quietly; and thus died one who acknowledged his guilt and admitted the justice of his punishment.

HIS EARLY LIFE.

Harper was twenty-two years of age, and was born in Morgan county, Ind. He had no Christian education, except the good counsels of his mother, which were disregarded. In 1864 he joined the 70th Indiana regiment, but soon after deserted. Since that time he has led a career of crime in this State, which yesterday terminated upon the gallows.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Illinois,Murder,Theft,USA

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