1862: Not Finnigan, miner’s court survivee

Add comment September 12th, 2017 Headsman

This entry from a diarist in Idaho’s 1860s gold rush arrives to us courtesy of Steven Tanasoca and Susan Sudduth in the Oregon Historical Quarterly of summer 1978.

Sydney-born, our observer George Harding in 1856 joined the wave of Austrlian migration to gold-strike California with his widowed mother and three younger brothers. But the family (augmented by a stepfather and an adoptive son) soon drove on to the Oregon Territory. In 1862, 19-year-old George, his brother Bill, and their stepfather Charles Murray tried their luck in the Idaho mining boom: far from prospecting, Harding made his bread by painting, carpentry, and suchlike workaday labor in the Elk City camp.


Wednesday 10th [September] Clear and fine all day. We worked all day on the fashion Saloon. A man by the name of [James] McGuire was shot through the neck this afternoon by a man named Finnigan. A most horrid murder was commited [sic] this afternoon. He was stabbed in the neck twice, cutting the jugular vein in two. He died about half an hour after. At the time of the murder, he was lying in bed supposed to be asleep. They have arrested Finnigan. Have suspicion that he committed the crime. We had a very severe frost last night. Ice was a quarter of an inch thick in the shop.

Thursday 11th Clear and fine all day. We work[ed] all day painting for Captain Maltby. The town has been in a great excitement all day. The miners came into town this morning and organised a Vigilance Committee. Finnigan has been on trial all day. The jury returned a Verdict about 10 o’clock this evening that he was guilty of Willful Murder. A great number of the miners was for hanging him right away, but after a little consideration it was decided that he should be hung at eleven o’clock tomorrow morning. We had another very heavy frost last night.

Friday 12th Clear in the morning, but got dark and cloudy in the afternoon. We worked all day for Captain Maltby. The scaffold was erected this morning about eight hundred yards from Elk City on the West side. Finnigan was brought to the scaffold about eleven o’clock under a strong guard. He was reading the prayer book all the way to it. When he got on the scaffold, he confessed that he committed the crime and stated the reasons why he had done it. He said that some time back he and the deceased had a quarrel in which the deceased had attempted to take his life with a knife and would have done it had he not been stopped by outside parties.* He said that after this he had wanted some revenge. Also, the deceased had said that he would kill him the first chance he got. Finnigan warned all young men to take warning by him to keep from drinking and gambling as it was that that had brought him on the gallows now. Finnigan took a parting leave of all his friends. The Sherif [sic] then covered his face and tied his hands behind his back and put the rope around his neck. The trap was then let go, and to the astonishment of the spectators, Finnigan fell to the ground. By some means or other the knot came untied after giving Finnigan a heavy jerk. As soon as he could speak he cried out to save him, save him. Some of the people then cried out to let him live and he was then taken back to the town, which he left this afternoon. It commenced raining this evening.

* The bad blood between these men is fleshed out a bit more — along with a more cinematic version of the gallows escape — in An Illustrated History of North Idaho. This source not unreasonably suspects that a sympathetic hand among the execution party might have rigged the noose to “by some means or other” come undone.

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1853: Three for the McIvor Gold Escort attack

Add comment October 3rd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1853, three bushrangers hanged in Melbourne Gaol for the sensational (and very nearly successful) McIvor Gold Escort attack.

Our hanged trio’s crime traces to the mad 1850s gold rush to Victoria, mainland Australia’s southwesternmost province* and more specifically to the McIvor Creek diggings near Heathcote. Gold was struck there late in 1853; by the next year, the place was heavy with prospectors. And gold, why, we know what gold does to men’s souls.

The notes are eternal but gold sings her siren song in every major and minor key; where she calls men, haggard and desperate, bearing pickaxes and gilded dreams, she also beckons in another register to their counterparts bearing ready sidearms and black hearts. Miners after a different name.

On July 20, 1853, some 2,300 ounces of gold extracted from the McIvor diggings were dispatched with an armed guard from the Private Escort Cmpany on its regular run to Kyneton. Here was a mother lode for characters who could stake it.

The July 20 gold escort encountered a blocked road and six desperadoes waiting in a well-orchestrated ambush: without bothering to demand the escort stand and deliver, the robbers opened fire on their prey, wounding four of the troopers — non-fatally, but enough to compel submission — and killing the coach driver, William Flookes, ere they looted the dray of treasure worth near £10,000.


19th century illustration of the attak on the McIvor gold escort.

When news of the incident reached McIvor, 400 outraged miners formed up in posses and set off in pursuit — but the robbers had planned their strike cunningly and were well ahead of the chase. Racing away through wilderness, they paused to divide their spoils near Kilmore and proceeded to Melbourne, where they scattered themselves and were able to duck a sweeping but essentially blind manhunt for several weeks.

Joseph Grey, George and Joseph Francis, William Atkins, George Wilson, and George Melville were perhaps on the verge of completing the caper by August 13 when George Francis got cold feet and turned himself into the police — shopping all of his confederates into the bargain.

Joseph Grey, the wiliest of the bunch, was cautiously changing his address every single night — and so George Francis’s information did not nab him. Grey managed to stay ahead of the search and make good an escape with his share of the booty: he was never caught.

The remaining four — including Joseph Francis, George Francis’s own brother — were all speedily snapped up.

A twist in the plot occurred when star witness George Francis slashed his own throat, leaving the crown with a virtually empty case until brother Joseph fulfilled the informer’s place, piously declaiming against the shootings as more crime than either Francis had bargained for. This self-serving pap came in for uproarious pillory by the defense barristers when the surviving Francis took the witness stand — “with your own person in danger, you would sacrifice your mother and tell any lie you rpoor intelligence could invent!” — but the stool pigeon’s evidence stuck, corroborated by accounts from the troopers who survived the ambush.

Atkins, Wilson, and Melville hanged together at Melbourne Gaol sixteen days after their judge donned the black cap. Melville’s wife availed her right to claim her husband’s body and scandalized Melbourne’s authorities by cheekily garlanding the corpse in flowers and putting it on display in her oyster shop on Little Bourke Street, charging half a crown per gawk. Melbourne Gaol’s hanged thereafter were exclusively buried within the prison yards itself, and Parliament soon legislated this as a nationwide requirement.

* While the gold rush brought many boom towns that expired with their associated mineral veins, it boomed the frontier town of Melbourne right into the gigantic metropolis it remains today.

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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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1864: Three Idaho robbers, choked on gold

Add comment March 4th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1864, Doc Howard, Christopher Lowery and James Romaine hanged at Lewiston for “the strangest and darkest chapter in north Idaho’s criminal annals.”

Lured west by prospecting’s siren song, explorers struck gold in Idaho in the 1860s and poured in, dragging in their wake the lawlessness characteristic of boom towns.

Idaho and eastern Washington, a correspondent wrote to the Baltimore Sun by way of summing-up the bonanza year of 1863,* “is exceedingly rich in deposits of gold” to the delight of “thousands of sturdy miners from California and Oregon.”

“It is estimated that the mines situated in Washington and Idaho Territories yielded for the year 1863 some $20,000,000, and it is thought that next year this amount will be doubled … coin is almost unknown in the various mining towns, and even the ost trivial transaction of business has to be paid for in gold dust.”

As usual in these cases precious few of the miners hit the mother lode; it was the contractors who supplied them best positioned to make out. In August 1863 Lloyd Magruder, a prosperous and respected pack train operator who had once sat in the California legislature, embarked one of his mule convoys heavy with mining goods from Lewiston, over the imposing Bitterroot Range, and bound for the burgeoning mining colony of Virginia City.**


The Bitterroot Mountains. (cc) image by Eric Gross.

But the hills held other treasures than merely retail markups.

A day after Magruder’s slow pack train set out, three rough frontiersman — our three men, Howard, Low(e)ry and Romaine — left Lewiston, too. Overtaking Magruder on the road, they joined his traveling party on an amiable basis; by the time they reached Virginia City, Magruder trusted them to help sell off his mining supplies. Business complete, Magruder was ready to return to Lewiston, he had $25,000 in gold revenue in his pockets and not an inkling that the boon companions he now hired as his guards meant to take it from him. That’s the gold … that’s what it makes us.

Deep in the mountains one night, the wicked trio — joined by a trapper, Billy Page, who was inducted into the plot (so he said) by means of the sure understanding that to refuse was death — murdered Magruder and four other men traveling in the party.

A night was chosen when they were encamped on a ridge which broke off on one side almost perpendicular for several hundred feet into a canyon or mountain gorge. Near the summit was a spring which furnished men and animals water. From a confession made by Page, the trapper, it appears that on the night selected for the massacre, Page was put on guard and told what was going to happen, and ordered to keep still under penalty of death. Magruder and Lowry were also on guard away from the camp in an opposite direction, while Phillips, Allan and the other men were fast asleep in their blankets near the fire. During the first watch of the night, Lowry, who was on guard with Magruder, approached within striking distance, and dealing him a powerful blow with an axe which he had concealed under his coat, awaiting the fatal moment, knocked him senseless to the ground, where he was speedily dispatched. The killing of the sleeping men in camp was then quickly accomplished. Page, the trapper, who was watching the mules near by, claimed that he saw the murders committed. As soon as daylight arrived, the mules were brought up and five of the best were selected, four for saddle mules for the men to ride and one to pack their plunder. The other animals were then driven into a deep canyon and they, too, were murdered. They tied the murdered men in blankets and dropped them over the bluff near camp, into the bottom of the canyon, several hundred feet below, after which, having secured the gold dust, they made a bonfire and burned all the camp equipage, including the aparejos and other paraphernalia of a pack train. (Early History of Idaho)

The murderers made for the coast, slipping quietly back into Lewiston and grabbing the first stagecoach out in the morning, en route to Portland, Ore. But a friend of Magruder’s, sensing in their furtive and ill-favored manner — buying tickets in disguise; heedlessly abandoning valuable mules and camp supplies — something of their villainous design, set a Javert-like pursuit upon their booted heels.

He would pursue them at his own expense, leaving behind the inn he operated in Lewiston, all the way to San Francisco whence they journeyed to have their gold shavings coined by the mint. Page earned his freedom for giving evidence against the others; the remaining three attained the distinction of suffering the first legal executions in the history of the Idaho Territory.

* Letter dated Jan. 1, 1864; it was published Mar. 24.

** Today a hamlet (Wikipedia pegs its population under 200) in the state of Montana; at the time, a Wild West boom town in the Idaho Territory whose tenuous order was maintained by a vigilance committee.

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1854: William Lipsey and James Logan, in gold rush Coloma

Add comment November 3rd, 2015 Headsman

The gold rush boom town of Coloma, California hosted its first (legal) hanging on this date in 1854.

Coloma was the very site of Sutter’s Mill, where the accidental discovery of gold flakes launched California’s gold rush.

The ensuing swell of human avarice arriving from every corner of the globe all but overwhelmed the frontier territory’s capacity; nearby San Francisco, “transformed … into a bawdy, bustling bedlam of mud-holes and shanties,” was so disordered that its laws were enforced extrajudicially by a self-appointed Vigilance Committee.

Coloma itself, the literal first mining town of the gold rush, boomed as the county seat of the new-christened El Dorado County. According to Alton Pryor, Coloma had 300 buildings and a hotel under construction by the summer of 1848, six months after the gold strike. (Today, Coloma is a near ghost town.) And like everywhere else, it had a job to manage the mad new world of desperate fortune-hunters ready to murder one another for the dust in their pockets.

Coloma has the distinction of giving birth to California’s first sheriff’s department, in 1852.

It’s almost surprising in such an environment that the original gold rush hotbed didn’t have an execution until 1854 — but Coloma made up for lost time* on November 3, 1854, by hanging two men, twice over.

The milestone perpetrators were classic frontier rascals, straight from a spaghetti Western rogues’ gallery. William Lipsey, a 25-year-old gambler, had murdered a fellow cardsharp in a drunken brawl over a game. James Logan, a 47-year-old miner “silvered o’er with age”, was condemned for killing a fellow miner in a claim dispute — though all the way to the gallows, Logan insisted to the last, before the 6,000 or so souls assembled to watch him die, that he had killed only in self-defense, remarking that

[h]e stood before them a condemned man, the victim of false testimony. It was true that he had taken the life of a fellow creature, but he had committed the deed in self-defence. He went to the claim where the tragedy took place, not as has been said to kill Fennel, but because the claim was his own, and he went to get possession of it. His own rash threats had brought him to the scaffold. In answer to propositions to settle the difficulty by law or arbitration, he had rashly replied that there was a shorter and better way — but he did not mean it. He went to the claim to get possession of it, but did not snap or present his pistol — he merely showed it. It was merely a single-barreled pistol. Fennel went and got a revolver, and came back and presented it at him, cocked. Fennel was advancing upon him with a cocked revolver when he presented his singlebarreled pistol. Any other testimony than this was false. He only snapped his pistol a moment before Fennel did his. The man who swore that he snapped his first swore a lie. They both snapped together. He had warned Fennel not to advance. He got behind Swift, and if he (Swift) had stood his ground, nobody would have been killed, But Swift flinched, and stepped aside. He then had to be killed himself, kill Fennel, or run away. He fired, and Fennel fell. He repeated that it was false that he snapped his pistol first; it was that snap that had brought him to the gallows, and the testimony about it was false.

In view of the halter (to which he pointed his finger) and in presence of that God before whom he was so shortly to appear, he was now speaking the truth. He would never have been hung if he had not had a principle of courage in his composition that prevented him from running away.

Lipsey, who was unquestionably guilty, did not have the older man’s composure and had to be half-dragged to the scaffold where he was so unmanned that he could not muster any last remark — though he was heard to murmur before dropped, “I don’t think I’m a murderer at heart.”

As the Coloma sheriff had no experience with executions, both men fell through their nooses and landed on the ground still alive. Still cool under pressure, Logan raised his hood to look around, got up, and walked back up to the gallows platform unassisted — but as the lawmen adjusted the hemp for the do-over, he recollected the letter of the death warrant and asked to see a watch.

“Ah, you have twenty minutes yet,” he exclaimed with a laugh. “If it was two o’clock I would demand my liberty under the law.”

* Coloma had another double hanging in 1855: outlaw Mickey Free hanged alongside Kentucky-born schoolmaster Jerry Crane, who murdered a student with whom he had become infatuated.

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1898: Doc Tanner, Copper River gold rusher

Add comment January 3rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1898, an ornery gold prospector became the victim of an Alaskan miner’s court … and a great gold rush scam.

This is a tragic sidelight of the great Klondike gold rush, a mania set off in summer of 1898.

As legions of America’s many unemployed set out in hopes of striking it rich in the frigid north, interest in the vast and underexplored interior of next-door Alaska naturally followed. After all, there had been gold finds in Alaska before.

The putative reasons justifying the spread of the Klondike fever to Copper River were some combination of these:

  • That the Copper River promised a shortcut into the Klondike easier than the route over Canadian soil;

  • That the Copper River itself had gold — and that it could be prospected under less extreme climate, and exempt from 20 percent royalties that Canada imposed on Klondike gold

Passenger steamers, whose operators were later suspected of flogging interest in this route as the “All-American trail,” brought several thousand bonanza-seekers from west coast cities to the tent-city port of Valdez, Alaska. From there, miners could tromp over a treacherous mountain-and-glacier path to the unspeakable riches of the Copper River.

“It was one of the greatest hoaxes in Alaska’s history,” write Jim and Nancy Lethcoe. “The prospectors arrived to find a glacier trail twice as long and steep as reported.”

An estimated two hundred people died, slipping off glaciers or frozen to death on the mountain or, as we’ll see, by acts of violence. By the summer of 1898, there was another rush — 3,000 or so busted prospectors pouring out of Copper River country back for Valdez. The U.S. government had to show up with provisions to avert mass starvation.

“Last winter papers of the country contained stories of the fabulous riches of the Copper river country, Alaska, the accessibility of the gold-laden land, cheapness of transportation, and in other ways lauded to the skies the country in which one had but to scrape the earth to secure a fortune,” ran a bitter report in the Aug. 27, 1898 Jackson (Mich.) Daily Citizen. The occasion was the empty-handed return of one of that city’s native sons, A.A. Jankowsky, from the Alaskan interior. “These stories, published in good faith, no doubt, had the effect of arousing in the minds of the more adventurous a desire to search for gold in the far-away land. Last spring there was a perfect exodus to the Copper river.”

Boston Journal, Jan. 7, 1898

Baltimore Sun, Sept. 6, 1898

Jankowsky, like many others, survived the treacherous journey into the interior only to find the Copper River region entirely destitute of gold. After supporting himself for a bit running a canteen, he joined a veritable stampede of thousands of duped prospectors fleeing back from the interior to Valdez. By his telling to the Citizen, “All along the trail were seen immense stores of provisions, representing in many instances, the savings of many years of prospectors, which were abandoned. Some of these contained cards marked, ‘Boys, help yourselves, I’ve gone home!’ Some of the men in their eagerness to get out had left their tents standing, containing clothing, bedding, stoves, firearms and everything else.”

Our date’s principal, Doc Tanner, at least had the comfort of never experiencing this disappointment ubiquitous to his fellow-adventurers.

The Kentucky native joined a party bound for Copper River that sailed from Seattle on November 20. Each had “grub-staked” $250 up-front with the understanding that they would be discharged from their ship with six months’ provisions … but when they were let out, they received only three months’ worth.

Oddly, Tanner seems to have been the only one incensed by this. When the leaders of the expedition refused to provide him an itemized account, Tanner turned into the cantankerous black sheep of the party as they drug their undersized packs over the dangerous Valdez glacier.

Matters came to such a pass that as dark fell on January 2, several of the other prospectors met in a tent to discuss turning Tanner out of the party full stop. Overhearing them, the enraged Tanner burst into the tent with the cool action hero words, “I’m here for business now,” then started firing. He killed two of the men; a third only owed his life to a lamp’s timely extinguishing during the affray. (1898 newspaper reporting also indicated that the tragedy redoubled for one of the victims, William Call: his wife upon hearing news of the murder fell into madness and was committed to an asylum, and lost the family’s indebted farm.)

Tanner immediately gave himself up to other miners of the camp and at dawn the next day faced an extra-legal drumhead tribunal that judged him guilty of murder and promptly hanged him.

As for Valdez, more orderly development of the trail from that port into the Alaskan interior ensued. Though cold comfort to men shot in their tents, hanged by miners, or fallen into glacial crevasses, that route eventually became part of the present-day Richardson Highway, and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

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1899: Three in the Klondike Gold Rush

Add comment August 4th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1899, the gallows of gold rush boom down Dawson City, Yukon strained for three murderers.

The 1896 gold strike in the Klondike triggered a huge rush of prospectors warming sub-Arctic climes with visions of sudden wealth. “When the world rang with the tale of Arctic gold, and the lure of the North gripped the heartstrings of men,” as put by that lure’s great muse Jack London, who himself had already come and gone from the Dawson City by this time, and struck his own variety of fortune in the process.

Miners pouring into the Yukon did not, of course, enter virgin territory. Native peoples had occupied it for thousands of years.

In May 1898, two prospectors, Christian Fox and William Meehan, camped near the mouth of McClintock Creek were only mildly uneasy about the arrival of the Nantucks, Tagish brothers who set up an adjacent camp. Relations were amicable for a while, but when returning one afternoon from the day’s work the prospectors were suddenly fired upon from ambush by their neighbors.

Meehan was slain in the fusillade. The injured Christian Fox managed to float away, get to land, and reach a miners’ settlement. He described the attack thus:

I was lying on the sacks against the side of the boat … and I saw Joe standing with his gun like this … and all the boys went into the brush, and I says to myself “Now they have shot us for our outfit, and are hurrying down to the next bend in the river to catch the boat … My only show is to get to the opposite side of the river and try to make for a white habitation” … I took the paddle in my hand and tried to paddle the boat but I was too weak, so I … used it as a pry … The boat ran up to a nice little level place where it was grassy and as I stepped out I stepped over the leg of my partner as he was stretched out over the boat with his head back and his mouth open and I saw that he was dead, and I said “Good by Billy old boy, I can do nothing for you here.”

By Fox’s report, the four Nantucks were soon taken into custody.


The four Nantuck brothers, shackled after arrest.

The trial unfolded in a court at the territorial capital of Dawson City. A compelling chapter in Strange Things Done: Murder in Yukon History does wonderful work with the cultural disconnections, including a two-page exchange between judge and interpreter (and, off-camera, Frank Nantuck) in which the court struggles to get the accused sworn “so help me God” since Frank’s cosmology has no idea of an afterlife. “He says, when he is dead he is dead — that is all I can get out of him,” the helpless middleman reports.

Q Has he any knowledge of God at all or any idea about a future state of rewards and punishments?

A No sir.

Q Or any clear belief in religion of any kind?

A No sir.

Q Will you say to him that we want him to tell us the truth and not to tell us anything that is not the truth; that he may be punished if he tells us anything that is not the truth; that we are going to ask him some questions and that he must tell us just the truth; ask him if he will agree to do that.

The outcome of the trial will not surprise and there was no question but that the Nantucks had done the shooting. What the Dawson court only barely noted was that brothers had been detailed to avenge two Tagish deaths. An old woman had previously been given or found some “baking powder” and proceeded to make bread with it: in fact, it was arsenic, which was used in mining. Here again is the cultural dislocation; the Nantucks living next to Fox and Meehan were trying to feel out whether those two prospectors were of the tribe that had provided this poison, and of equivalent social rank to the two men who died eating the arsenic-bread. Basically, neither side in this subarctic tragedy had any concept of what the other was on about.

There’s a play about this case, Justice. Peruse the play’s pdf companion study guide on the real historical case here.

In the end, all four Nantucks were condemned to die; Frank was probably still a minor, and he had cooperated with the investigation, so his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment … which did not turn out to be very long at all, since Frank and his condemned brother Joe both died in jail of tuberculosis during the 1898-99 winter.

Dawson Nantuck and Jim Nantuck remained to hang.

Momentarily sensational, the case was long forgotten among whites; it has, however, remained in the oral tradition of Yukon First Peoples. Both communities, however, saw the case brought to the fore when excavations accidentally turned up their remains — along with those of two other hanged men.

One of the other two was the third man to hang this date, a fellow by the name of Ed Henderson. Henderson was an American prospector whose fate might be a bit less instructive for posterity. He suffered from a horrible bladder infection that caused him to pass bloody water every 15 or 20 minutes. “The tortures of the damned,” he described it to court. Wincing yet?

The fact that Henderson suffered from it meant his two prospector-mates suffered from it as well — call it purgatory-level suffering; a member of their party had to relieve himself constantly and thrashed about in his sleeping bag all night for the agony it caused him.

Their empathy for his situation was overturned along with Ed Henderson’s inside-the-tent piss-bowl one night. The drenched and vengeful Tomberg Peterson started an immediate brawl, but Henderson’s leaky plumbing didn’t impair his ability to shoot Peterson dead. Henderson himself reported the incident when the prospectors reached their destination, possibly thinking that no jury would convict him.

The trio comprises the first men hanged by the Yukon Territory, which was only separated from the Northwest Territory in 1898. In fact, there was a bizarre procedural deficiency for the Nantucks (but not for Henderson): they were condemned by the court of the wrong, former territory since word of the territories’ separation had not reached Dawson City at the time of the trial. Nobody saw fit to remedy this blunder, however.

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1921: Mailo Segura, a Montenegrin in Alaska

1 comment April 15th, 2013 Meaghan

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

At noon on this day in 1921, Mailo Segura was hanged in Fairbanks, Alaska.

In 1918 he had murdered a miner, J.E. “George” Riley, near the gold rush town of Flat, in a dispute over money. His was the second execution in Fairbanks history.

George Riley was in charge of the mining operations along Orter Creek near Flat. Segura was a lumberjack and, together with some other men, had sold $300 worth of cordwood to Riley on credit.

In early 1918, Segura confronted Riley with the bill and demanded to be paid. By then, the bill had been outstanding for two years. Riley, however, refused to pay. He said he wasn’t going to hand over any money until Segura either brought his wood-chopping partners along with him to collect the sum in person, or brought a statement from his partners authorizing Segura to take the full amount.

As witnesses at his trial later testified, Segura was furious with Riley and said he would kill him if Riley didn’t give him the $300. On March 2, he withdrew his life savings of $1,800 from his bank account and later that day went looking for the deadbeat.

Segura found his quarry at the mining claim and waited patiently, assisting with the mining work so he wouldn’t look suspicious.

When all the other miners had gone inside the boiler house, Segura shot Riley in the back without warning. The miners heard the shots — there were three, any one of which would have been fatal — and ran outside to find their employer lying stone dead on the ground and Segura running away.

It didn’t take much effort to catch him. Once he was surrounded, Segura raised his hands in surrender and shouted, “Me no kill no more.”

Seeing as how Mailo Segura had repeatedly threatened Riley’s life and then shot the unarmed man from behind, his claim of self-defense didn’t go very far at his trial. He was convicted of first-degree murder on July 18 and was supposed to be hanged on October 8, but Segura put his $1,800 life savings to use filing appeals, and thereby prolonged his life by three years.

When his time came, he was terrified and unable to walk to his death. The authorities had to strap him to a board to keep him upright while they fastened the noose around his neck.

A matter of minor interest: Mailo Segura hailed from halfway around the world in the tiny Balkan kingdom of Montenegro; he might be the only Montenegrin ever executed in North America. (Montenegrins were then and still are today a sizable minority in Alaska.) In spite of his European descent, in trial documents he was referred to as “black,” and possible racial prejudice on the part of the jury was an issue in his appeals.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Alaska,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Other Voices,Pelf,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1902: Fred Hardy, the first hanged in Alaska

5 comments September 19th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1902, a hanging in Alaska capped a gold rush story fit for Jack London.


“A leetle favor … I gif my husky-dog, Diable, to de devil. De leetle favor? Firs’ you hang heem, an’ den you hang me.” Illustration from Jack London’s short story “Diable” (or “Batard”).

Actually, this tale is set not in London’s characteristic Klondike gold rush, but a subsequent one centered on remote Nome. There, in the words of the Rex Beach novel The Spoilers, “a frenzied horde of gold-seekers paused in their rush to the new El Dorado. They had come like a locust cloud, thousands strong, settling on the edge of the Smoky Sea, waiting the going of the ice that barred them from their Golden Fleece — from Nome the new, where men found fortune in a night.”

(The Spoilers is available free online in both text and audio book forms. The clip above is from a 1914 cinematic adaptation.)

The victims in this case of mercenary arctic brutality were a party of four who set up prospecting camp on Unimak Island, in the Aleutians. Their impression that they were safely alone on this large territory was refuted with the inexorable cruelty of a slasher flick.

After being caught out by the elements in a secondary camp, the party returned to its unsecured main base to discover “that their tent had been torn down in their absence and their stores taken away.”

Here the ominous overture fades in, and by the time it hits crescendo the mysterious robbers will have visited a cold-blooded massacre on our quartet of prospectors.

“Suddenly a man, who had been hid by the tall coarse grass, jumped up several hundred yards away, and took aim with a rifle at Florence. He fired and Florence fell with a scream. ‘Con’ and I ran for the boat, jumped in, and Rooney started to shove her off. The next moment a shot came from somewhere in the cliff above our heads.

“Rooney grabbed hold of his right knee, cried ‘They’ve got me too,’ and sank into the surf. Con and I saw that there was no use trying to get away in the boat, and so took it on the run for the shelter of the cliffs. We hadn’t gone twenty steps when another shot rang out; Con threw up his hands and fell headlong upon the beach, stone dead, with a shot between the shoulders. I kept on running, hearing shot after shot fired at me and striking about me with dull thumps like pieces of heavy hail.”

That’s from the riveting account of the lone survivor, one Jackson, who managed to escape into the island’s interior and after tramping about for two weeks, near to starvation and in continual terror of his stalkers, was finally found at death’s door by a friendly hunter.

Jackson’s information was able to tip off an investigation that led to the capture of two suspects. By the time Fred Hardy and George Aston were nabbed, they had “taken possession of” a fishing village and “kept [the fishers] in a terrified state.” They also happened to have the late prospectors’ booty, including personal items like an inscribed watch.

Aston wisely turned on his confederate, saving his own neck at the cost of stretching Hardy’s.

Hardy, a veteran of America’s colonial adventure in the Philippines and a nephew (so he said) of department store magnate John Wanamaker, denied guilt all the way to the scaffold but got no help from appellate courts or from President Teddy Roosevelt. (Since Alaska was still a territory, executive clemency was up to the White House.) He was put to death “in an addition built to the ice-house on the lot opposite the jail” (according to Washington state’s Morning Olympian, Oct. 3, 1902) at Nome City itself.

It wasn’t actually the first execution in Alaska, or even American-run Alaska, but Hardy’s hanging was a significant milestone. Prior to 1900, the vast territory was next door to lawless, order enforced in the interior by miner’s meetings or not at all, while a smattering of coastal military and customs outposts projected vague federal authority. Data on executions from this period is sketchy and incomplete.

In 1900, with the Alaskan population booming from that locust cloud of gold-hunters, promulgation of a civil code set Alaska on the way to something resembling normal government. Hardy’s execution was the first under legal judicial authority — the first of eight in the first half of the 20th century. Alaska abolished capital punishment shortly before attaining statehood in 1959.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Alaska,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Notably Survived By,Pelf,The Supernatural,USA

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