1926: Richard Whittemore, Mencken subject

Add comment August 13th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1926, Richard Whittemore — the chieftain of a notorious armed-robbery syndicate in Prohibition New York and Maryland — was hanged at Baltimore’s Maryland Penitentiary for murdering a prison guard during an escape the year before.

Whittemore, known as the “Candy Kid” — it’s not clear to me whether this throwback nickname alludes to his gang’s prodigious heroin addiction — was national news for a brief twelvemonth during Prohibition.

In 1925, he busted out of prison in Maryland, killing a guard. It was for this crime that he ultimately hanged, but it was for his months on the lam that he made his blackened name.

Whittemore recruited a coterie of cold-blooded toughs and commenced a series of brazenly public violent robberies. (He also wifed up someone called Tiger Girl.)

After heisting a few payrolls — back when such things were delivered in armored cars instead of by digital funds transfer — the Candy Kid’s gang made for New York, where they proceeded to stick up several jewelry stores and eventually (in Buffalo) to hijack a Federal Reserve truck.

For all their momentary success, their candle burned at every possible end. Stickups followed each other with just a few weeks in between to squander the proceeds and, as alluded, the gang indulged a judgment-impairing drug habit.

The end, when it came, was swift.

In March 1926, barely a year after blasting his way out of prison, Whittemore was caught. Within the next five months, he beat charges in New York (pdf), was extradited to Maryland, found himself convicted of murder there, and expeditiously hanged.


Years later, the death of this professional blackguard is probably most noteworthy to posterity for the attendance among the select circle of witnesses of professional crank (and son of Baltimore) H.L. Mencken.

That irascible pundit was no foe of the death penalty (although the nature of his support veered idiosyncratic). He scarcely felt the hanging’s participants to have been degraded or brutalized by the ritual of hanging Whittemore, and held forth on the subject in a subsequent essay later reprinted in A Mencken Chrestomathy:

It is unpleasant, I grant you, to see a man put to death, but the brutality of it is immensely overestimated by those who have never enjoyed that honor. They forget this technical skill that can make even killing painless and humane. And they forget that the victim himself is almost always a brute with little more sensitiveness than an ox. I witnessed recently. He went to his death with a swagger, and obviously full of an imbecile delight in the attention he was attracting. His occupations in his last days were those of a happy half-wit, and his final message, delivered through the tabloid newspaper, the Baltimore Post, was precisely the sort of defiant rubbish that such a moron would be expected to formulate and delight in. The whole thing, to him, was a gaudy show, and it was quite impossible for any rational man, observing him at the end, to have any very active sympathy for him.

A new State law has got rid of the obscene crowds that used to flock to hangings, and of the bungling that once made them revolting. The gallows at the Penitentiary is admirably designed. Whittemore dropped at least ten feet, and he was unconscious instantly. Save for one brief drawing up of the legs as he died he didn’t move an inch. The old-time jail yard gallows was a wooden structure with a high step, and the condemned had to climb up that step. It was a dreadful ordeal. He could see the noose a long way off. But Whittemore, stepping out of a second-story door on to a high platform, was on the trap before he saw the rope at all. If he had not delayed the proceedings to bawl a nonsensical farewell he would have been dead in less than a minute after he emerged. As it was, he dropped in less than two minutes. Was the thing horrible as a spectacle? No more than the most trivial surgery. One does not see a man hanged. One sees a black bag.

I have spoken of Whittemore as a moron. The term is probably flattering. His farewell message in the Post and his philosophical autobiography in the same instructive paper, published a few months ago, showed the mentality of a somrwhat backward boy of ten. Such professional killers, I believe, are nearly all on the same level: a Gerald Chapman is very rare among them, as a man of honor is rare in Congress. The sentimentalists, observing the fact, employ it as an argument against capital punishment. It is immoral, they contend, for the State to take the life of a creature so palpably stupid, and hence so little capable of sound judgment and decent behavior. But all this, it seems to me, is full of bad logic. The State of Maryland did not kill Whittemore because he was a moron: it killed him because he had demonstrated conclusively that his continued existence was incompatible with the reasonable safety of the rest of us. What difference did it make whether his criminality was due to lack of intelligence, or, as in the case of Chapman, to intelligence gone rancid? The only important thing was that he was engaged habitually, and apparently incorrigibly, in gross and intolerable attacks upon the public security. What was to be done about it? He had been sent to prison without effect. He had actually committed a murder in prison. There remained only the device of taking his life, and so getting rid of a dangerous and demoralizing nuisance.

To argue that society, confronted by such a rogue, has no right to take his life is to argue that it has no rights at all — that it cannot even levy a tax or command a service without committing a crime. There are, to be sure, men who so argue, and some of their arguments are very ingenious. But they have not converted any considerable body of reflective men and women. The overwhelming majority of people believe that, when a man adopts murder as his trade, society is justified in putting him to death. They have believed it in all ages and under all forms of government, and I am convinced that they still believe it today. The execution of Whittemore was almost unanimously approved in Maryland. If he had escaped the gallows there would have been an uproar, and it would have been justified.

The opponents of capital punishment have firmer ground under them when they object to the infliction of the death penalty upon criminals other than professional murderers. The public opinion of Christendom long ago revolted against its employment to put down minor crimes: for example, theft. There has been of late a revolt against its use even in certain varieties of murder, and that revolt, I believe, is largely responsible for the increasing difficulty of getting convictions in capital cases, and the increasing tendency of the courts to upset convictions by legal quackery. The truth is that our criminal codes need a thorough overhauling. The old categories of crime are only too often archaic and irrational. It is absurd to hang an aggrieved husband for killing his wife and her lover, and let a professional murderer live because, in a given case, the State is unable to prove premeditation. The test should be, not he instant intention, but the antecedent circumstances. Every one of us, under easily imaginable conditions, may commit a premeditated murder. But that possibility does not make us professional criminals, and it does not necessarily justify the death penalty in case we succumb. Juries obviously have felt that way, for many a murderer has escaped under the so-called unwritten law.

Judge Frederick Bausman, of the State of Washington, a very intelligent jurist, once suggested a way out. All crimes, he said, should be divided into two new categories; those which a reasonable and otherwise reputable man, under the circumstances confronting the accused, might be imagined as committing, and those showing only deliberate and gratuitous criminality. Under the first heading would fall many crimes of passion and many ordinary thefts. Under the second would fall the doings of the Chapmans and Whittemores. The man who commits the former is now often used too harshly; the man who commits the latter is almost always used too softly. What sense is there in the old rule of evidence that the record of an accused, save he go on the stand himself, may not be brought against him on his trial? It is hypocritical and vain, for juries consider it notwithstanding. It is unjust, for the record often contributes to a sound judgment, as it did in the Whittemore case. The important thing is not to play a game according to a set of tight and stupid rules but to punish and put down crime. The way to do that is to proceed swiftly and harshly against professional criminals. I believe that every gunman should be hanged after his first shot, whether it kills or not. To stop short of that is to put the rights that he has deliberately forfeited above the public security. In other words, it is to convert the judicial process into a scheme for protecting and fostering crime.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Maryland,Murder,Organized Crime,Theft,USA

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1936: Rainey Bethea, America’s last public hanging

36 comments August 14th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1936, thousands thronged Owensboro, Kentucky, for a glimpse of what would prove to be the last public hanging in the United States.

The U.S. followed the trend of its onetime mother country, England, in moving the formerly iconic public hanging increasingly behind closed doors, but its federalist structure made that change uneven. In Kentucky itself at this time, the law displayed sedimentary layers of death penalty history.

Caught up for killing a 70-year-old woman — done in the midst of a drunken burglary, he had left a telltale ring at the scene; fingerprint analysis also helped establish his guilt — Rainey Bethea was on the hook for murder, robbery and rape. The former two indictments would have subjected him to (private) electrocution at the state penitentiary. The latter charge still carried the punishment of public hanging in the local county seat.

Bethea was charged only with rape.

While the explicit sentencing disparity between the crimes bears the clear marks of racism and patriarchy that made purported black-on-white sexual crimes such live fodder for lynch law, and the four-and-a-half-minute jury deliberation doesn’t have the look of solemnity, Bethea’s actual guilt seems fairly well-established.

But the case attracted a nationwide media swarm not for any exceptional quality of the crime or the anachronistic nature of the punishment, but for the involvement of a female sheriff. The “matronly” (virtually all descriptions of her gravitate to this adjective) Florence Thompson had inherited the top law enforcement post upon the death of her husband … and that meant she had inherited the responsibility of hanging Rainey Bethea, which would make her the first American woman to supervise an execution.

Would she or wouldn’t she? The press descended on Owensboro to cover the edifying spectacle of a plump mother stringing up a rapist, or else maneuvering her way out of the job. Thompson played cagey until the very last moment, when the ringers she had secretly hired appeared on the scaffold while she watched from a nearby vehicle.

In this photo, Bethea — almost totally obscured between his escorts — has just begun ascending the gallows.

The man who threw the trap showed up drunk and performed appallingly, but press reports subsequently focused on the beastly behavior of the “jeering” crowd rushing the gallows to tear souvenirs from the corpse. (For instance, Time and the New York Times.)

But according to Perry T. Ryan’s 1992 review of the case — including interviews with surviving witnesses — little to nothing of the kind occurred. Ryan claims Bethea faced about the most dignified hanging mob imaginable.

Maybe hyped-up atrocities in the hinterlands were part of what distant editors demanded after H.L. Mencken at the Scopes trial. Certainly, the local Messenger-Inquirer painted a sharply different picture from more prominent outlets in this August 16 editorial (titled “Panderers Galore”) whose themes could have stepped fresh from a modern cable TV gabfest:

Ambitious and irresponsible reporters and photographers who swarmed into Owensboro for the Bethea hanging dipped their ready hands into the cloaca of evil designs and plastered over the name of this fair city the dirty results of their pandering.

Those who saw the dawn kindling in the east and ushering in the last sunrise of the despicable creature about to die, did not expect all of the watchers to be in reverent mood, but a calm, quiet demeanor characterized their behavior, as a group, throughout their long wait, surprisingly moderate for an occasion on which the law was exacting the supreme penalty.

Considering the size of the throng that witnessed the hanging Friday morning and that it was composed largely of people, who journeyed to Owensboro from distant places, the wonder is that there was no demonstration, no emotional outburst. There was not the semblance of ‘mob impulse’ or ‘eagerness for the kill.’ For the sensation seeking star scribes of quacks of American journalism, it was entirely too tame an affair. This is the reason that some of them reported it as they wanted it to be — not as it was.

They heard a very few people on the outskirts of the crowd call out at different times: ‘Hurry up,’ ‘Get it over’ or ‘hang him.’ To give screaming bulletins to the yellow press and to ruthless radio commentators, they magnified and colored it into a scene of ‘great disorder’ though there was never a general outcry of any kind.

When a priest held up his hand from the scaffold for silence, as Bethea was about to go to his death, there was no ‘blood thirst’ mob ‘shouting and yelling.’ Present were several thousand, who came from near and far to see a man legally hanged for the most heinous crime ever committed in Daviess county, and several thousand more, who turned out to see how the rest would act. When that hand went up in a gesture for silence, the buzz of the multitude’s conversations died down till the fall of the proverbial pin could have been heard.

The smart scribes and sob sisters looked on. All they saw was a black man standing on a scaffold with a rope around his neck and a mass of people peering up at him. That was too tame, they would call it a ‘jeering’ throng. All they heard was the click of the trap door. That would not do. There would have to be ‘cheering.’ So they said there was. Then they heard cameramen from cities where nothing is cared about the horrible crime Bethea committed. They were bawling at officials to ‘move out of the way,’ to ‘give us a break.’ They had to have their souvenirs to show the half civilized readers of their yellow sheets. The boys and girls who had to tell the story needed more color to regale them with atrocious accounts of how the people behaved. They found a few individuals who had gone in the bizarre which inspired thundering headlines about ‘gayety’ and ‘carnival’ spirit.

In administering the last sacrament, the Rev. H. J. Lammers, of Louisville, made an opening in the hood. When the doctors pronounced Bethea dead, one of the attendants at the scaffold took a tag off the hood. Another then took a fragment and others, who were at arms length from the dead man, followed suit. The blunder of tearing off that tag gave the high powered thrill-writers their big opening. They pictured the crowd as tearing Bethea’s clothes from his body. The crowd was never in disorder and Bethea’s clothes were never torn.

The ‘souvenir hunting mob’ did not even pick up the sox [sic] and shoes the doomed man left at the foot of the gallows. It did not so much as touch the basket in which Agnew and Wheatley, colored undertakers, placed the body, clothes and all, or molest it or them in the slightest as they bore it away.

The scavenger writers who came to depict a ‘jolly holiday’ and ‘gala occasion’ had both, but they never saw a more orderly throng at a baseball game.

The public hanging of Bethea was not a disgrace to Kentucky. But, a disgrace to Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, and some other states, was the spectacle made of it in their scandal monger press. Owensboro should not be surprised at the scurrilous attack upon it by lurid writers and glib tongued talkers in northern and eastern states for they delight to distort any news from Kentucky into weird barbaric tales. We have learned how best to protect our women from rapists-murderers, white or colored. The only way, it seems, that we will ever be able to protect them from the cruelties of a sordid section of the press, will be by softening the state’s anti-rape law, which makes public hanging mandatory. So many as favor that will please tell the legislature.

Vendors of news occupy an important place in the nation, and their purpose should always be to maintain unquestioned exactness of facts. Where the subject matter is susceptible to coloring there should be no sacrifice of truth. To pervert the high honor of the profession for the paltry reward of more readers is a dangerous venture and one that should be curbed.

Owensboro’s citizenry, than which no finer representatives of high-bred Americans can be found anywhere, regrets that it was necessary to invoke the Mosaic law, but a sobered regret and a more solemn memory is that the hanging was eagerly seized upon and transformed into a picturization of the exhibition of low passions loosed.

We are proud of our city, and justly so, for no people are of finer fiber. The putrid pens of those who wore the garb of the news profession painted in lurid colors purported happenings, and it is sad but true that such distorted reports are accepted while the plain statement of facts is discarded as an attempted apology.

Thousands of those who witnessed the Bethea hanging came from outside the county. They belonged to good families in their communities, temporarily bereft of their better judgment and bent on viewing a scene which ordinarily would be extremely repugnant to them. And the out-of-town reporters found in the visitors elements to embody in their sordid stories.

A thoughtless word here and there, expressed without cognizance of its probability of misuse, and the staid citizen away from home becomes to the wild-eyed correspondent a Kentuckian gunning for human game. There should be available means of calling to account the writer who for a few filthy shekels diverts his sense of justice into the recording of things that never were.

As the editorial intimates, regardless of what actually happened in Owensboro, the circus atmosphere quickly brought the matter of public hangings into question. In 1938, the Kentucky legislature moved all executions behind prison walls … and Bethea secured an indefinite claim to the status of last person publicly executed in the United States.

Part of the Themed Set: At the End of the Rope.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Kentucky,Milestones,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,USA

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