1873: John Gaffney, hanged by a President

1 comment February 14th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1873, John Gaffney hanged in Buffalo — the last of two executions conducted by future U.S. President Grover Cleveland.

The man whom future foes on the national stage would deride as the “Buffalo Hangman” got his political start as sheriff for that Erie Canal port. It was the Sheriff’s honor not only to drop the trap on a condemned man like Gaffney, but, in the first days of February, to successfully petition Gov. John Adams Dix* for a short delay pending execution of the sentence.

Having been condemned for a drunken murder the year prior, Gaffney was then engaged in playing vigorously his last card for clemency: “either insane through fear of death or pretending insanity,” as press reports put it. (We find this one all the way down in Texas’s Galveston Tri-Weekly News of Feb. 7, 1873.) “He has become very violent and uses the foulest language to all who approach him. He walks incessantly, and is said to have abused his spiritual adviser in the most outrageous manner to-day, and threw a crucifix at him through the grating.” Most everyone supposed this was a put-on, but a group of physicians wanted some time to examine him for propriety’s sake.

This ruse kept Buffaloans quite excited for the next week, butteressing the already-vigorous movement among its best citizens for sparing Gaffney’s life.

But in the end, his life was only spared for a week.

To give the killer his due, he had the dignity not to continue the pretense once the governor made it clear that the attempt had failed. Sheriff Cleveland delivered to Gaffney the bad news, and with it, an instantaneous return to reason. (Gaffney admitted once again under the gallows that his madness was shammed.)


From the Feb. 12, 1873 New York Herald.

For the whole of his short adult life, and even years before then, Gaffney was a rough customer down in Buffalo’s seedy dockside canal district — where “a life didn’t count for much.”

One night in May the previous year, Gaffney had been on one of his frequent benders through the district’s cutthroat dive bars. While gambling that night at Sweeny’s saloon, he fell into a senseless quarrel with another of his depraved ilk named Patrick Fahey — which ended when Gaffney produced a pistol and the evident intent to use it. Fahey fled as Gaffney fired errantly, making it all the way to the street before his whiskey-addled assailant finally aimed true. The noise of the volley brought a pair of police running — they only ventured into this part of town in pairs — and they arrested Gaffney on the spot while Fahey breathed his last into the iniquitous gutter.

Gaffney’s usual crew zipped their lips. But police were able to find a minstrel named McQueeney who was witness to the mayhem and prepared to talk (and testify) about it.

By the end — after eight months’ worth of legal maneuvers, clemency appeals, and faux-insanity — Gaffney affirmed his guilt to the witnesses who attended his Valentine’s Day hanging, blaming drink for escalating the encounter and regretting that he had not admitted all and thrown himself on the mercy of the court. “I beg pardon for all the crime I have done, and I forgive all who have injured me,” he said. Then at two minutes before noon, the 22nd and 24th** U.S. president touched the spring to open eternity beneath Gaffney’s feet, and efficiently snapped his neck.

* Dix was one-half of the namesake of the Dix-Hill cartel under whose auspices the belligerents of the recent Civil War managed their prisoner exchanges. The breakdown of this exchange system in 1863 helped create the conditions for the humanitarian catastrophe at Andersonville.

** As all U.S. civics nerds know, Grover Cleveland was President from 1885 to 1889, then lost an election to Benjamin Harrison, then defeated Harrison in a rematch in the next election and returned to the Oval Office from 1893 to 1897: the only president who served multiple terms non-consecutively.

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1886: Tabby Banks and Tom Honesty, for election rejection

Add comment June 4th, 2015 Headsman

This date in 1886 gives us the double execution of two men named Banks and Honesty — words we don’t hear in the same sentence every day, amirite?


Baltimore Sun, June 5, 1886: the source of all newspaper quotes in this post.

That’s Tabby Banks and Tom Honesty, to be exact, “two full-grown and powerful negroes” who to nobody’s satisfaction denied all the way to the gallows that they had murdered a white 18-year-old, Joseph McFaul, outside the (still-extant) Taylor Hotel on November 14, 1884. The sources I have located do not explicate any beef specifically known to have existed between these individuals; they do, however, situate the conflict squarely within America’s political environment in that electoral year. It is not only in passing that we have noted the parties’ racial identities.

Days before McFaul died, former hangman Grover Cleveland was elected President — the first Democrat to win the office since before the Civil War.

It might be better to say that Cleveland was the first Democrat to hold the office. The tossup 1876 presidential election was more-or-less won by New York Democrat Samuel Tilden, but he was bilked of the prize in an electoral college bargain that exchanged another Republican presidency for the end of Reconstruction.

In the 1870s and 1880s, northern whites were steadily coming around towards Southern whites’ distaste for the ongoing rigor necessary to enforce the putative equality of ex-slaves with their former masters.

Recognizing that such lethargy among white elites in effect amounted to abandoning the field to the violent reassertion of white supremacy, blacks were deeply apprehensive about 1884. Some even feared that chattel slavery might be restored outright. For all the growing indifference of the Republicans, the potential election of the Democrat Cleveland, T. Thomas Fortune wrote during the campaign, “would be a cold afternoon for this country and especially for the Negro and the laboring classes.” (Via)

This is presumably why McFaul, a Democrat taking part in a celebratory parade for Cleveland’s election, would have been hateful to Banks and Honesty. According to the Baltimore Sun, those latter two had previously “traversed the [march] route, threatening to kill some democrat.” Later, McFaul chanced to nominate himself their target by stepping into an alley, where the two churls “immediately attacked him.” Some passing Samaritan saw what was happening and managed to pull McFaul out of the alley and onto the street; still, his assailants did not disdain to press the assault in public view and clobbered the young man with a rock.

Everyone parted and went their separate ways, but young McFaul was a dead man walking. His skull fractured by the stone, he died that night in his sleep.

President Cleveland, of course, did not restore slavery. He took little interest in the situation of black Americans and did nothing to check the onset of Jim Crow, but in this he was not so different from his Republican contemporaries. Nobody among the nation’s white elite had a belly for the fight any longer.

Frederick Douglass had to concede in a Washington, D.C. speech of 1886 that “as far as the colored people of the country are concerned, their condition seems no better and not much worse than under previous administrations.”

Lynch law, violence, and murder have gone on about the same as formerly, and without the least show of Federal interference or popular rebuke. The Constitution has been openly violated with the usual impunity, and the colored vote has been as completely nullified, suppressed, and scouted as if the fifteenth amendment formed no part of the Constitution, and as if every colored citizen of the South had been struck dead by lightning or blown to atoms by dynamite. There have also been the usual number of outrages committed against the civil rights of colored citizens on highways and by-ways, by land and by water, and the courts of the country, under the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, have shown the same disposition to punish the innocent and shield the guilty, as during the presidency of Mr. Arthur.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA,Virginia

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1886: Joseph Jackson and James Wasson, at Fort Smith

Add comment April 23rd, 2013 Headsman


St. Louis Globe-Democrat, January 31, 1886

America’s most notorious “hanging judge” Isaac Parker issued the sentences resulting in this date’s double hanging at Fort Smith, Ark.

A much more prodigious body count had been ordered initially by the court, but clemencies straight from the hand of U.S. President (and former hangman) Grover Cleveland averted five of seven death sentences on their eve of execution. All the killers under sentence, spared or no, committed their murders in Indian Country.

In February, 1886, seven men were sentenced to be hung on April 23, 1886, but before that day arrived the sentences of all but two had been commuted. The two unfortunates were Joseph Jackson, a negro, convicted of killing his wife at Oak Lodge, Choctaw Nation, on March 9, 1885, and James Wasson, a white man, who participated in the murder of Henry Martin in 1872, but was not apprehended until he took a hand in the killing of a man named Watkins in 1884.* (Source)

Jackson slashed his own throat with the shard of a vase in an unsuccessful bid to cheat the hangman, and sported a terrible gash on his neck when he hanged.

* According to the Atchison (Ks.) Daily Globe of April 30, 1885, Watkins was a cattle baron, whose widow wife then put a $1,000 price on Wasson’s head. The killer’s arrest ensued promptly. Although Wasson hanged for the earlier murder and not for that of Watkins, the aggrieved Texan woman “was here [at Fort Smith] every term of court after Wasson was brought in, and employed counsel to assist the District Attorney in prosecuting him, having, it is said, spent over $7,000 in bringing him to justice.” (St. Louis Globe-Democrat, April 24, 1886.)

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Seven Generic Halloween Costumes You Can Spice Up With an Execution Story

5 comments October 22nd, 2008 Headsman

Executed Today’s Guide to Halloween, Part II (Click here for Part I.)

Not enough time to assemble an individual masterpiece to play Halloween make-believe? Looking at that off-the-rack costume, that witch outfit from last year, and sighing that it’ll have to do?

No sweat.

Let Executed Today help you go from so generic to sui generis with a horrible backstory that adds conversation-starting depth to the most bland of disguises.

Witch

The Halloween standby has a few hundred thousand real-life executions of which we’ve covered a bare handful.

Anne de Chartraine, a Walloon teenager burnt for witchcraft during the Thirty Years’ War, makes a good characterization of the classic black-hat-and-broomstick outfit.

More complex occultist disguises might consider presenting themselves as poisoner La Voisin, author Jacques Cazotte or the Weirs.

Pirate

Avast, ye sea-dog — there be more pirates than Blackbeard.

Men (especially leftists, anarchists and Bostonians — but I repeat myself) will enjoy answering the inevitable question when representing as William Fly. Ladies — think Anne Bonny and Mary Read.

Ghost

Appropriately, the Great White North has interesting specters to round out the old white-sheet look. Haunt the scene of the kegstand as Madame Marie Josephte Corriveau or assassin Patrick Whelan.

Roman

Cicero is an obvious choice for the toga set, but consider writing Catiline on the nametag instead.

For the whole centurion look, call yourself Sejanus and start settling scores.

Soldier

There are many military looks for many times and places, of course, lots of them liable to be politically touchy in the wrong crowd.

Partisans like Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya and Evagoras Pallikarides cut heroic figures with a plain set of clothes, some basic military gear, and a knapsack full of consonants.

More formally equipped modern-ish choices of various different lands include Francisco Caamano, Breaker Morant, Mikhael Tukhachevsky, Claus von Stauffenberg, Dmytro Bilinchuk, Emil August Fieldorf, and Theophile Maupas et al.

Werewolf

This blog will always have a special place at the stake for supposed real-life lycanthrope Peter Stubbe, the “Werewolf of Bedburg” who was profiled in our very first post: he was executed October 31, 1589.

Executioner

Of course, there is one ubiquitous character in these pages — and his face isn’t always well-hidden.

Klutzy Brit Jack Ketch, prolific French Revolution headsman Sanson, U.S. President Grover Cleveland and (helpfully, for Halloween) flamboyantly costumed Italian executioner Mastro Titta are among the famous characters to tread the scaffold boards.

Creative Commons pumpkin image courtesy of fabbio

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1872: Patrick Morrissey, by a future U.S. president

7 comments September 6th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1872, Buffalo sheriff — and future U.S. President — Grover Cleveland personally sprang the trap to hang matricide Patrick Morrissey.

Grover Cleveland hanged convicts on two non-consecutive occasions.

Morrissey’s drunken altercation with his widowed mother, that led to a stabbing, that led him to the gallows, would obviously be lost to remembrance but for his accidental association with the man who would become president 12 years later. Of course, it was precisely the other way around at the time of the hanging — so the New York Times article (pdf) on the execution has a pleasurable aspect of discovered curiosity: for the newsman, a dull just-the-facts slog in a forgettable day’s work; for posterity, an accidental glimpse at history’s backstage.*

Cleveland had taken office as Erie County sheriff the year before, his stepping stone from a legal practice into an illustrious electoral career in the Democratic Party that would see him rise to Mayor of Buffalo and Governor of New York (and, after his death, to the $20 bill).

One of Cleveland’s duties as sheriff was to carry out death sentences; he declined to delegate the responsibility to one of his assistants — the hagiography says that his ethical rectitude compelled him to assume the weighty responsibility personally — and handled Morrissey’s dispatch with his own hands.

With his subsequent ascent in the political realm, Cleveland’s activities this day made him the rare notable executioner to earn his fame in another walk of life.

Or infamy, as the case may be. In an era of competitive sloganeering and sobriquets,** Cleveland’s Republican opponents tried to hang him — so to speak — with the nickname “The Buffalo Hangman”.

* The other death row murderer referenced in the Times story was Cleveland’s second (and last) execution on February 14, 1873.

** Like most presidential pols of the time, Cleveland had many more nicknames, both friendly and not — “Uncle Jumbo” because of his girth; “Old Veto” for his liberal use of executive power; and others. (He was also elected a bachelor and married a 22-year-old beauty while in office. Eat your heart out, Bill Clinton.) The New Yorker avers that Buffalo voters during Cleveland’s early local incarnation actually knew him by the avuncular-yet-unwholesome handle of “Big Steve”.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New York,Notable Participants,Popular Culture,USA

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