1859: John Stoefel, the first hanged in Denver

Add comment April 9th, 2016 Headsman

This date in 1859 saw the first hanging in Denver — then a nascent mining town known as Denver City.

Denver in 1859 dangled on the far end of a long western extrusion of the Kansas Territory, but had John Stoefel managed to refrain from murder just two years longer he might have had the privilege to be the first to hang in Colorado Territory instead.

Massachusetts Spy (Worcester, Mass.), April 6, 1859

Indeed, the town had only sprung into existence the previous summer — product of the Pike’s Peak gold rush that drew to the territory thousands of fortune-hunters, desperadoes, and merchants servicing same.

Characteristically for a boom town, Denver grew with more rapidity than order.

On a New York to San Francisco overland odyssey, newsman Horace “Go West Young Man” Greeley arrived in Denver in June, missing our milestone hanging by weeks; his annals (being dispatched east for publication) describe a hardscrabble* place that “can boast of no antiquity beyond September or October last.”

Outlaws and fugitives formed a class “not numerous, but … more influential than it should be”:

Prone to deep drinking, soured in temper, always armed, bristling at a word, ready with the rifle, revolver, or bowie-knife, they give law and set fashions which, in a country where the regular administration of justice is yet a matter of prophecy, it seems difficult to overrule or disregard. I apprehend that there have been, during my two weeks sojourn, more brawls, more pistol shots with criminal intent in this log city of 150 dwellings, not three-fourths of them completed, nor two-thirds of them inhabited, nor one-third fit to be, than in any community of equal numbers on earth.

No surprise, the first outright murder case to blot the infant city implicated two prospectors: our villain John Stoefel, one of a party of German emigres, shot his brother-in-law Thomas Biencroff on April 7 for his gold dust. From that point, Stoefel had 48 hours to live; standing on only the barest pretense of legal nicety, a “people’s court” convened to try and condemn Stoefel on the basis of his own confession, then immediately hanged him to an obliging tree.

The affair was reported in the very first issue of the Rocky Mountain News, a newspaper that debuted two weeks after Stoefel’s execution/lynching and was destined to survive until 2009.

* Greeley: “It is likely to be some time yet before our fashionable American spas, and summer resorts for idlers will be located among the Rocky Mountains.” You’ve come a long way, Colorado.

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1861: The Bascom Affair hangings, Apache War triggers

Add comment February 19th, 2015 Headsman

The retaliatory executions a U.S. Army lieutenant carried out on this date in 1861 helped set in motion a decade-long war with the Apaches.

Three years out of West Point and brand new to Arizona’s Fort Buchanan, George Bascom in retrospect was probably not the ideal ambassador to send out with orders to retrieve a young half-Apache boy kidnapped from a ranch by an Indian raid. (Along with all the cattle.)

Since nobody was present at the time, the identity of the raiders just wasn’t known — but someone’s suspicions affixed on the wily and dangerous* Chiricahua warrior Cochise. The Chiriachuas were just one group among the Apache peoples; they ranged from Mexico to southeastern New Mexico and southwestern Arizona, and were divided into many small local groups each with their own leader — like Cochise.

Lt. Bascom would be killed in a Civil War engagement a year after the events in this post without leaving posterity his memoirs, so his understanding of Apache society can only be guessed at. But his on-the-make bullheadedness is universal to every time and place where young men can be found. “Bascom was a fine-looking fellow, a Kentuckian, a West Pointer, and of course a gentleman,” Arizona frontiersman Charles Poston later remembered. “But he was unfortunately a fool.”


Lt. Bascom and Cochise.

The greenhorn lieutenant rode out with 54 cavalrymen to Apache Pass and lured Cochise to a confabulation. Cochise showed up with his brother, wife, and children — clearly expecting some sort of social call.

Cochise was entirely unaware of the kidnapping, and unaware that Bascom considered him the kidnapper. He offered to find out about it and retrieve the boy from whomever had him.

Bascom, whose troops had surrounded the tent during the parley, accused Cochise of lying to him. Cochise had twice the impertinent lieutnant’s years and at least that multiple of Bascom’s sense, and must have been affronted by his opposite number’s behavior — but when Bascom announced that he would be taking Cochise and his companions as prisoners pending the return of the raiders’ spoils, the Apache commander whipped a knife out of its sheath and instantly slashed his escape route through the wall of the tent. Bursting past the shocked troops (they were as inexperienced as their officer), Cochise escaped into the twilight. This “Bascom Affair” (to Anglos) is remembered more evocatively by Apaches as “Cut Through The Tent”.

But the tent-knifing was only the start of it.

Cochise’s party did not manage to follow his escape, so Bascom now held Cochise’s brother, wife, son, and two other warriors. The Apache tried to put himself in a negotiating position by seizing hostages of his own — first a Butterfield stagecoach stationmaster named Wallace, and later three white men seized from a passing wagon train.

Nor were the hostages’ the only lives at stake. Cochise’s band, including the soon-to-be-legendary Geronimo, had assembled and their campfires burned menacingly in the hills around the little stage station where Bascom’s force fortified themselves. Bascom could have defused it all with a hostage swap, but the kid had his orders and stubbornly refused to make the trade unless it included the one hostage Cochise didn’t have: that little boy from the ranch.

At length, reinforcements for the beleaguered cavalry began arriving, one such party bringing three other Apaches captured en route and entirely unrelated to Cochise. “Troops were sent out to search for us,” a much older Geronimo recalled in his memoirs. “But as we had disbanded, it was, of course, impossible for them to locate any hostile camp … while they searched we watched them from our hiding places and laughed at their failures.”

Despairing now of seeing his family again, Cochise had his hostages killed and dispersed, leaving the mutilated remains to be discovered by his antagonists with the help of circling buzzards. When they did so, they retaliated in fury — releasing only Cochise’s wife and child, but hanging the six other hostages, including Cochise’s brother. In the narration of Sgt. Daniel Robinson,

After witnessing the fiendish acts committed by the Apaches, the minds of our officers and men were filled with horror, and in retaliation, it was decided in Council, that the captive Indians should die. On the 19th we broke camp to return to our respective posts leaving a Sergeant and eight men to take charge of the station until relieved. We halted about half a mile from the station where there was a little grove of Cedar trees. The Indians were brought to the front with their hands tied behind their backs, and led up to the trees. Noosed picket ropes were placed around their necks, the ends thrown over the limbs of the trees and manned by an equal number of willing hands. A signal was given and away flew the spirits of the unfortunate Indians — not to the happy hunting grounds of Indian tradition. According to their ideas or belief in a hereafter, those who die by hanging can never reach that region of bliss. I was in an ambulance with the other Sergeant, and must confess it was a sad spectacle to look upon. An illustration of the Indians sense of Justice: “That the innocent must suffer for the guilty.” And the white man’s notion — “That the only good Indians are dead ones.” Whatever it may be, I do not think it was much worse than the present policy of penning them up on Reservations and starving them to death. (See Cochise: Firsthand Accounts of the Chiricahua Apache Chief.)

A devastating decade-long war against Cochise and his equally able father-in-law Mangas Coloradas ensued, and right when the army most needed its military resources for the Civil War. The conflict claimed hundreds or thousands of lives, crippled mining and ranching, and depopulated fearful white settlements around Apache country in favor of “gravestones … by the road-side like sentinels, bearing the invariable description ‘Killed by the Apaches'”.

A fort near the Texas border was later named for Bascom. The kidnapped boy was never recovered and grew up in a different Apache tribe.

The events of, and following, the Bascom Affair were depicted on the silver screen in the 1950 Jimmy Stewart western Broken Arrow and its 1952 prequel Battle at Apache Pass — among many other cinematic adaptations.


Tom Jeffords (Jimmy Stewart): “Cochise didn’t start this war! A snooty little lieutenant fresh out of the east started it. He flew a flag of truce which Cochise honored, and then he hanged Cochise’s brother and five others under the flag.”

* Cochise was officially at peace with the Americans at this point and hostile to Mexicans. In “Cochise: Apache War Leader, 1858-1861,” in the Journal of Arizona History (Spring 1965), Barbara Ann Tyler argues that the reality of the situation was that his warband flexibly shifted between temporary peace and opportunistic small raids, moving north and south of the Mexican border as convenient.

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1804: Little Harpe and Peter Alston, Mississippi pirates

2 comments February 8th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1804, two known as John Setton/Sutton and James May were hanged at Greenville, Mississippi.

They were, in fact, Wiley “Little” Harpe and his outlaw partner Peter Alston — the survivors (well, up until then) of a notorious gang of Mississippi River pirates and frontier highwaymen.

Their villainous coterie had plagued the Mississippi (river) and the proximate byways from Kentucky down to Mississippi (state), making a couple of spots on the great river legendary pirate hideouts in the process.

With a price on the head of the notorious leader Samuel Mason, “Sutton” and “May” coldly murdered their captain to turn in his head for the reward.

They got their reward alright. They were recognized as Mason’s own fellow-bandits, and themselves put on trial for piracy.


The Harpe Brothers

This date’s hanging was not only the end of the Mason gang — it was the end of the Harpe Brothers.

Micajah Harpe (“Big Harpe”) and Wiley Harpe were brothers or cousins who cut a bloody swathe through the early American Republic, such that some have acclaimed the Harpes that young nation’s first serial killers. They were, in one historian’s words, “the most brutal monsters of the human race.”

Heading west out of North Carolina after Revolutionary War service as Tory irregulars, the Harpes made for Knoxville, Tennessee, kidnapping wives for themselves along the way. When they were rousted out of their cabin on accusations of livestock-rustling in 1797, their notorious careers really began in earnest.

This was, then, the extreme western frontier of the United States, and the Harpes were consequently able to plunder in wilderness impunity.

And they slew with a frequency and savagery far in excess of the professional demands of a bush robber.

Big Harp confessed before dying in 1798 to 20 murders, probably not counting the babies. Estimates are as high as 40, but usually around 30. After two killings, one in Knox County and one on the Wilderness Trail, the Harps left Tennessee in December 1798 for Kentucky, where they killed two traveling men from Maryland…

The final stretch of slaughter took place soon after this, in July 1798, when the Harps returned to Eastern Tennessee. The victims included a farmer named Bradbury; a man named Hardin; a boy named Coffey; William Ballard, who was cut open, filled with stones, and dumped in the Holston River; James Brassel, with his throat ripped apart on Brassel’s Knob; John Tully, father of eight. On the Marrowbone Creek in south central Kentucky, John Graves and his teenaged son, out planting crops, had their heads axed. Moving toward Logan County, the Harps came upon a little girl, whom they killed, as they did a young slave on his way to the mill. Once in Logan County, near today’s Adairville, near the Whippoorwill River, they butchered an entire migrating family asleep in their camp, but for one son who survived. (Source)

TruTV also has an account of them sending a hijacked flatboat passenger over a cliff, and bashing a little girl’s head in against the side of a bridge.

“They murdered all classes and sexes, without distinction,” a Knoxville man* recounted years later, “not for plunder but for the love of shedding human blood.” We don’t have Little Harpe’s conscience on the record, but Big Harpe would only express remorse for one of his dozens of homicides: smashing his own infant child against a tree to make it stop crying.

That sentiment would come at the end, when Big Harpe had been cornered by a posse after murdering a frontier woman. The widower in that posse halved the Harpe menace by hewing Big Harpe’s head from his shoulders.

For generations after the subsequent roosting-spot of this deathly visage — presented to a justice of the peace to verify the man’s death (and pocket the price on his literal head), then hung up for public display by the intersection of Morgenfield, Henderson, and Maidensville Roads in Union County — was known as Harpe’s Head.

Little Harpe’s subsequent career with Sam Mason and his own violent demise capped the Harpe brothers’ nefarious legacy.

Their name was so infamous that many of their family changed it … including, according to rumor, the ancestors of legendary Wild West lawman Wyatt Earp.

* J.W.M. Breazeale was part of the posse that hunted down Big Harpe, and a witness to Big Harpe’s death, and gives the outlaw the (possibly tall-tale) last words directed to his slaughterer in mid-beheading: “You are a God damned rough butcher, but cut on and be damned.”

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1868: Sam Dugan lynched in Denver

Add comment December 1st, 2012 Headsman

Like San Francisco and other western cities dissatisfied with the half-lawless frontier atmosphere, the city of Denver formed a “Vigilance Committee” — ominously known as “The Stranglers” — to maintain rough quasi-justice, “meted out innocent and guilty alike.”

This date in 1868 marks the end of one of the guilty.

Sam Dugan, aka Sanfourd Dougan, is seen here lynched to a cottonwood tree at Cherry Street, midway between 4th and 5th streets, in Denver.

(Denver’s city plan has changed quite a bit since those days, but I believe the present-day location of this lynching would be approximately Speer Blvd. in a knot of paving the edge of the downtown University of Colorado campus.)

The photo, snapped by the morning light of Dec. 2, 1868, showed the previous night’s work of the Vigilance Committee.

Dug(g)an was a young (23 years old) knockabout in the territories with a blackhearted reputation, having been thought to have killed a man at a camp the year before.

In 1868, he and buddy Ed Franklin robbed a justice of the peace, one Orson Brooks, at gunpoint. As one can imagine, Brooks was one of the little town’s more prominent citizens and the crime outraged residents.

Denver lawmen chased Brooks’s assailants to nearby Golden, Colo., where Dugan’s accomplice Franklin — blind drunk — was shot dead resisting arrest. An innocent Golden citizen named Miles Hill also died when he was caught up in the the shootout to take Dugan … but Dugan himself escaped.

Public fury over this bloodshed (on Nov. 22) precipiated the Nov. 23 lynching of already-jailed outlaw L.H. Musgrove from a Cherry Creek bridge, not far from where Dugan would soon stretch hemp. (Musgrove had ridden in a murderous gang with the late unlamented Ed Franklin.)

Our surviving fugitive Dugan, meanwhile, made a run for Wyoming but was picked up within a few more days at Fort Russell after he stole a mail carrier’s horse. Marshal David Cook, whose public-domain Hands Up! or Twenty Years of Detective Work in the Mountains and on the Plains is a major source for this post, went to retrieve him.

Given the Musgrove lynching, Cook must have had an idea of the danger Dugan would face in Denver. Denver papers anticipating the party’s arrival said that Cook’s team “will bring the prisoners dead or alive. The former condition would be preferred by many.”

About 90 to 100 vigilantes made that preference into fact after dark on Tuesday, Dec. 1, stopping a police wagon moving Dugan between lockups, just as it was crossing a bridge over Cherry Creek.

The hijackers redirected the wagon around the corner to a copse of trees and “in a moment a rope was thrown over the limb, and in another moment, Dugan was standing in the wagon immediately under the fatal noose.”

That’s from a newspaper report that appeared in several publications; our cite is from the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel on December 21, 1868.

Dugan, “completely unmanned, crying and sobbing like a baby,” wheedled and stalled, begging for a Catholic priest and making various professions of innocence or mitigation that would cut no ice with his judges.

After he had said all that he had to say, the order was heard, “Drive on,” and the wagon which had served as his frail bulwark between life and eternity moved from under, and the spirit of Sanford S.C. Dugan took its flight into the presence of Him who shall judge us all according to the deeds done in the body. The fall, about eighteen inches, broke his neck. He was a man six feet two inches in height, and weighed 205 pounds.

Cook, in Hands Up!, says he “would gladly have prevented” the lynchings, “but it was useless for [lawmen] to fly in the face of an entire community, which had been outraged and which was aroused, not so much to vengeance as to the necessity of protecting itself against the rough element of the plains.”

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1782: William Crawford, expeditioneer

2 comments June 11th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1782, Col. William Crawford was burned to death by Delaware Indians after being captured leading a punitive expedition to Ohio’s Sandusky River.

Originally an Atlantic coast peoples — “Manhattan” is a Delaware word, although “Delaware” itself isn’t — the Delawares or Lenape had with other native peoples removed to an Ohio territory supposed to be reserved against white settlement. It was the fruit of a deal that kept them on the British side (or at least, off the French side) in the Seven Years’ War.

But staying out of it would be a nonstarter during the American Revolution, because said territory was situated right between the British in Detroit and the westward American settlements in the Ohio Valley. Our man William Crawford was on hand to sign the colonists’ 1778 Treaty of Fort Pitt making nice with the Delawares: it’s the first written treaty between the United States and any Native Americans, and like most of that genre it didn’t last long.

The Delawares were okay with letting colonists march through their territory to attack Detroit, but when the U.S. pushed for them to get into the fight themselves — and when frontiersman murdered the pro-neutrality chief — it pushed many Delawares over to the British side. Opinion among their neighbors, the Shawnee, Wyandot and Mingo, likewise tended to range from “hoping to stay out of it” to “allying with the British,” and the latter sentiment was further encouraged by a kindling sentiment among peoples all along the frontier that uniting their efforts was their only hope of holding back imminent Anglo expansion.

Back east, the colonists beat the British at Yorktown in October 1781, more or less clinching independence. Hostilities around the eastern seaboard settled down in the run-up to the war’s formal diplomatic conclusion in 1783.

“Quite otherwise,” said M.M. Quaife in a 1930 address to Ohio’s Wittenberg College* “was the situation west of the Alleghenies. In this area the war was prosecuted with increased vigor and fury throughout 1782, which thereafter acquired the significant designation, the Bloody Year.” It was not a clean fight by any party.

In March of 1782, an expedition by colonials hunting settler-killing Indian raiders resulted in the Gnadenhütten massacre, the wholesale butchery of a settlement of noncombatant Delawares — Christian converts, no less.

In May of that same year, finding Indian raids not deterred, the Crawford Expedition finally set out: a party of officially-blessed volunteer frontiersmen whose object was “to destroy with fire and sword (if practicable) the [Delaware] Indian town and settlement at Sandusky, by which we hope to give ease and safety to the inhabitants of this country; but, if impracticable, then you will doubtless perform such other services in your power as will, in their consequences, have a tendency to answer this great end.” (General William Irvine)

Crawford had come out of retirement for this great end. And he made out his will before he departed.

The expedition came to grief within days, as an attempt to fall back by nightfall from a spot called Battle Island (actually a copse of trees in an open space, not an island in a river) deteriorated into a disordered rout. And though most of the expedition was able to flee safely back to their point of departure, Crawford himself and a few subalterns became separated, and lost.

When Indians picked them up, with Gnadenhütten still on their minds … well, Crawford made out that will for a reason. Most of the lesser prisoners were simply tomahawked and disposed of, but Crawford and a Dr. John Knight were reserved for more fearful treatment.

Knight — who would escape before his own execution — left this blood-chilling description** of his compatriot’s end, under the eyes of the British agent Simon Girty. (Knight later also composed a ballad about the expedition.†)

When we went to the fire the colonel was stripped naked, ordered to sit down by the fire, and then they beat him with sticks and their fists. Presently after I was treated in the same manner. They then tied a rope to the foot of a post about fifteen feet high, bound the colonel’s hands behind his back and fastened the rope to the ligature between his wrists. The rope was long enough for him to sit down or walk round the post once or twice, and return the same way. The colonel then called to Girty, and asked if they intended to burn him? Girty answered, “Yes.” The colonel said he would take it all patiently. Upon this Captain Pipe, a Delaware chief, mae a speech to the Indians, viz., about thirty or forty men, sixty or seventy squaws and boys.

When the speech was finished they all yelled a hideous and hearty assent to what had been said. The Indian men then took up their guns and shot powder into the Colonel’s body, from his feet as far up as his neck. I think not less than seventy loads were discharged upon his naked body. They then crowded about him, and to the best of my observation, cut off his ears; when the throng had dispersed a little, I saw the blood running from both sides of his head in consequence thereof.

The fire was about six or seven yards from the post to which the Colonel was tied; it was made of small hickory poles, burnt quite through in the middle, each end of the poles remaining about six feet in length. Three or four Indians by turns would take up, individually one of these burning pieces of wood and apply it to his naked body, already burnt black with the powder These tormentors presented themselves on every side of him with the burning fagots and poles. Some of the squaws took broad boards, upon which they would carry a quantity of burning coals and hot embers and throw on him, so that in short time he had nothing but coals of fire and hot ashes to walk upon.

In the midst of these extreme tortures he called to Simon Girty and begged of him to shoot him; but Girty making no answer, he called to him again. Girty then, by way of derision, told the colonel he had no gun, at the same time turning about to an Indian who was behind him, laughed heartily, and by all his gestures seemed delighted at the horrid scene.

Girty then came up and bade me prepare for death. He said, however, I was not to die at that place, but to be burnt by the Shawanese towns. He swore by G-d I need not expect to escape death, but should suffer it in all its extremities …

Col. Crawford, at this period of his sufferings, besought the Almighty to have mercy on hi soul, spoke very low, and bore his torments with the most manly fortitude. He continued in all the extremities of pain for an hour and three-quarters or two hours longer, as near as I can judge, when at last, being almost exhausted, he lay down on his belly; they then scalped him, and repeatedly threw the scalp in my face, telling me that “that was my great captain.” An old squaw (whose appearance every way answered the ideas people entertain of the devil) got a board, took a parcel of coals and ashes and laid them on his back and head, after he had been scalped; he then raised himself upon his feet and began to walk round the post; they next put a burning stick to him, as usual, but he seemed more insensible to pain than before.

The Indian fellow who ha me in charge now took me away to Capt. Pipe’s house, about three-quarters of a mile from the place of the colonel’s execution. I was bound all night, and thus prevented from seeing the last of the horrid spectacle. Next morning, being June 12, the Indian untied me, painted me black [signaling his imminent execution -ed.], and we set off for the Shawanese town, which he told me was somewhat less than forty miles distant from that place. We soon came to the spot where the colonel had been burnt, as it was partly in our way; I saw his bones lying among the remain of the fire, almost burnt to ashes: I suppose, after he was dead, they laid his body on the fire. The Indian told me that was my big captain, and gave the scalp halloo.


Detail image (click for the full view) of an illustration of Crawford’s torture and execution. Here’s another.

Counties in both Pennsylvania and Ohio bear Crawford’s name; several historical markers in Ohio chart the course of the ill-starred Sandusky campaign … including a phallic monument at the approximate spot of the burning, just north of the tiny town of Crawford, Ohio. (Map)

* Printed as “The Ohio Campaigns of 1782” in The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, March 1931.

** Here’s another description by another white eyewitness (alleged, anyway), who was taken in an unrelated raid some weeks before.

† A recent mp3 rendition of “Crawford’s Defeat by the Indians” is available for a 99-cent download.

Part of the Themed Set: Ohio.

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1869: Chauncey W. Millard, candy man

1 comment January 29th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1869, Chauncey W. Millard was shot in Provo, Utah, for a stagecoach murder and robbery.

Despite the trust fund moniker, Chauncey Millard was an underbelly character, a youth of uncertain age (18 or 19, went the estimate) who had drifted west from an abusive apprenticeship. His complete backstory — not even his name* — was never fully assayed, and the Utah authorities did not keep his acquaintance more than a few weeks before they shot him. “It was snowing like this when I done it,” he remarked on his execution day: frontier justice had not allowed even a single season to elapse.

Though slightly different configurations of his backstory are to be found, all recognize him as a youth barely grown from out of that vast and indistinct vagabondage of lumpen marginalia consigned to the shadowlands to scrap for their bread. He wanted any education save a self-made career of small-time savagery. His life was nasty, brutish, and short.

The San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin of Jan. 5, 1869, presents a representative summation, channeling a wire story from the scene:

DREADFUL DEPRAVITY — The Salt Lake Reporter of December 24th has the following:

The young man now in the county jail, for the murder of Swett, certainly comes as near being a complete reprobate as any we have met. He tells the story of the murder, and the unsuccessful attempt on Mayfield, with great circumstantiality of detail, adding in conclusion: “Well, Mayfield needn’t be afraid of ever being killed by a pistol, for it can’t be done. His life is insured. I shot at him four times, fair as ever a man did, and with good aim too, and never hurt him.” After the killing, he fled across a ridge, and the next day hired to a Bishop there to herd sheep. As he relates the story, the Bishop spoke of his intention to buy a beef, upon which the young man asked: “Have you got money enough to buy a beef?” “No,” said the Bishop, “but I think I can trade for it.” The prisoner adds very complacently: “I think he was a little scared, but if he had money enough to buy a beef, I thought I would pop him over, take what he had, and light out!” When arrested he merely said: “I suppose you’ll string me up to the first good limb you come to, but I’ll take a nap first.” Upon which he lay down in the wagon and snored quite lustily for four hours.

On awaking he expressed some surprise at not being hanged at once, and was told in this country every man could have a trial and a choice between being hanged or shot. To which he made reply: “By —, that’s bully, I’ll take shooting all the time.” He first gave his name as Chauncey Millard, stating that he had no recollection of his father; but soon after spoke of his mother’s maiden name being Millard, to his paternity is rather doubtful. He was born in the South;** early neglected and abused, and taught nothing worth knowing, his hand was against every man and a good many hands against him. The man to whom he was apprenticed mistreated him, and his first crime was destroying his master’s property for revenge. This was at the age of 13; not long after that he became a bushwhacker, and with a few companions robbed or murdered rebel or Union soldiers indifferently. With the return of peace he came West, and relates several crimes and attempts committed in this Territory.

He expresses a willingness to die, saying he has tried to make money by crime and made a failure. Strangely enough the young man has what phrenologists would call “rather a good head,” and presents an interesting but terrible case of “perverted moral instinct.” He is 18 or 19 years of age, not above the latter, though he is not certain of his age. He presents a curious case of the youthful criminal, made so by the utter neglect of moral cultivation.

Calling him, as one source does, “Utah’s version of Billy the Kid” would probably be more corrective of William Bonney’s inflated legend than of Millard’s utter obscurity.

The tawdry particular of his death: having no kin, and no care, he heedlessly made the Faustian bargain to salvage some last juvenile diversion in this world in exchange for the mortified flesh he was about to take leave of.

The execution proved what a human fiend Millard was. Selling his body to Doctor Roberts of Provo for a pound of candy, he calmly ate the sweets while sitting in the executioner’s chair awaiting the fatal shot.

It’s as pronounced an example as one might ask of the disreputable anatomy trade preying on poverty.

* Chauncey Millard was the name he gave the lawmen, at least; his real identity was never clearly established, though the Salt Lake City News reported shortly before “Millard’s” hanging that guards found a tattoo reading “C.E. Otoway” on his arm and hypothesized that to be his real name. Did 19th century drifters usually tattoo their own names on their bodies?

** Other versions have him a New York delinquent.

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1896: Bill Gay, prospector

2 comments June 8th, 2010 Headsman

This date in 1896 saw the Helena, Mont., hanging of frontiersman Bill Gay.


A ticket to Bill Gay’s hanging in December 1895 — which was, obviously, postponed.

As a prospector a generation earlier, Bill Gay had actually struck gold in the Black Hills, not far from Deadwood, S.D. The settlement that grew up around his claim, Gayville, was briefly in contention to be a key entrepot in the covered-wagon trade stripping Sioux land of precious metals.

Alas, Gayville burned down and became a ghost town, just like its founder became a ghost.

Maybe it was Bill Gay’s candle burning at both ends that caused the conflagration. The temporarily wealthy Gay (sporting furniture imported from the east coast!) had the pull to marry a dance-hall hottie … just, not so much pull that he had total impunity to ice a younger rival for his wife’s affections. After serving a turn in the clink for that murder — an abbreviated turn; the guy was rich, after all — Gay was back to square one as a prospecting plainsman, and moved on to Montana.

In Castle, Mont., where he settled (another mining camp later turned ghost town; see Ghost Towns of Montana), Gay fell into a mighty feud with local newspaperman John Benson.

When Benson’s establishment “mysteriously” burned down, a posse was detailed to bring in Gay, along with Gay’s brother-in-law. They killed a couple of deputies in the process of (successfully) blowing town; the in-law, Harry Gross, was never caught, but Gay was apprehended in California and returned to face the music.

Despite the Herculean efforts of his daughter, Maud — the wire report of the hanging (this one printed in the next day’s Omaha Morning World-Herald) complained that “never in the history of Montana have more efforts been made to save a criminal a neck” — he hanged this morning, still protesting that old Harry Gross had been the dead-eyed triggerman.

There’s a nice exposition of Bill Gay’s life from Wild West magazine reprinted at HistoryNet.com.

Bill Gay has no known connection to New York City piano lounge Bill’s Gay Nineties, which is an obvious oversight on someone’s part.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Montana,Murder,Pelf,USA

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1901: “Black Jack” Tom Ketchum, who was left in three pieces

21 comments April 26th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1901, a two-bit outlaw from a vanishing frontier made his reservations for hell.

Tom Ketchum — who had become known as “Black Jack” when misidentified with another hombre he resembled — was the last man to hang in America for attempting to rob a train. Given the way the authorities in Clayton, N.M., conducted the job, that’s probably for the best.

This Texas-born outlaw enjoyed a colorful career in the 1890s Southwest plundering trains, killing folk, and other distinctively American pastimes. His name attaches to the [in]famous Hole in the Wall Gang.

He was finally caught attempting a dangerous one-man train robbery, when a conductor (taking part in his third stickup, and tired of being on the wrong end of the gunbarrel) got the drop on Ketchum and winged him with a shotgun. Too weakened by his injury to escape, Ketchum surrendered himself to the law, and his wounded arm to the surgeons.

The un-amputated remainder belonged to Clayton, N.M. — New Mexico Territory, that is, which was not yet a state at this time, but was keen on making an example to stanch the tide of train robberies.

(Formally, the charge that hung Ketchum was “felonious assault upon a railway train”; he was the only person executed for this offense before the Supreme Court decided that a hanging crime needed more victims than just an iron horse. This jurisprudential advance might not have done Black Jack very much good anyway, since neighboring Arizona had also put in an extradition request for murder.)

So far, so good.

Then, they actually dropped him.

When the body dropped through the trap the half-inch rope severed the head as cleanly as if a knife had cut it. The body pitched forward with blood spurting from the headless trunk. The head remained in the black sack and flew down into the pit.

SOME MEN GROANED.

Some men groaned and others turned away, unable to endure the sight. For a few seconds the body was allowed to lie there half-doubled up on its right side, with the blood issuing in an intermittent stream from the severed neck as the heart kept on with its mechanical beating. Then with cries of consternation the officers rushed down from the scaffold and lifted the body from the ground. It was only then apparent exactly what happened.

The drop of the body was seven feet and the noose was made so it slipped easily. Ketchum was a heavy man, and the weight of the body, with the easy-running noose, caused the rope to cut the head cleanly off. Dr. Slack pronounced life extinct a little over five minutes from the time the body dropped through the trap. It is stated too much of a drop was given for so heavy a man.

Just so we’re clear: a seven-foot drop is much, much too far for a man of Ketchum’s 190-plus pounds. Maybe they were distracted by rumors of an escape attempt.

The newspaper account above cites much more forgettable scaffold-talk from Ketchum, but we can’t help but find charm (and obviously, black humor) in his alleged last words,

I’ll be in hell before you start breakfast, boys! Let her rip!

Fictional? If so, they’re more like what Ketchum’s last words ought to be. Although let St. Peter‘s ledger reflect that Ketchum was a decent enough chap to post a letter to President McKinley on the morning of his own execution copping to several robberies for which other people were imprisoned.

Initially buried — naturally — at Clayton’s Boot Hill, this infernal denizen’s grave can now be found (and more than a century on, tourists and admirers do find it) at Clayton Memorial Cemetery.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,Gallows Humor,Hanged,History,Infamous,Mature Content,Milestones,New Mexico,Notable Jurisprudence,Outlaws,Public Executions,Theft,USA

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