1873: John Devine, “The Chicken”

Add comment May 14th, 2016 Headsman

Purple prose for a broken neck from the San Francisco Bulletin of May 14, 1873. Transcribed below is only the first third of the article — the remainder being dedicated to accounts of various other previous San Francisco executions.

This day has been marked by an event of signal import in the history of this city, wherein the slow hand of justice, after a lapse of many years, has overtaken one of the class of reckless criminals who have reveled in rapine and bloodshed, bringing reproach on the fair fame of San Francisco, and red-handed murder has expiated its guilt by the righteous penalty of ignominious death upon the scaffold.

Whatever may be the abhorrence of capital punishment commonly experienced by a portion of the people, while contemplating the events of the past few years, the tardy and uncertain sway of justice, a sense of satisfaction and increased security will be inspired in the whole community by the announcement of John Devine, “The Chicken,” has met the fate which the law prescribes for the destroyer of human life, and there is one murderer less in San Francisco.

From the infamous character of this man, and the terror which his deeds of violence excited through a long course of comparatively unpunishable crime, ere consigning him to oblivion, the public will be interested in a brief sketch of the

Career of the Murderer.

The man who has now paid the penalty of his last dark crime, leaves a record which has no parallel among the many depraved wretches who have figured in the brief but terrible criminal history of San Francisco, and perhaps the half has not been told.

The police officials considered him the most dangerous and unscrupulous criminal that infested the city, and hint at mysterious deeds of blood, never unravelled by the minions of justice, with which he is believed to have been connected. In truth, he was a fellow by the hand of nature marked, quoted and signed to do a deed of shame — apt, liable to be employed in danger with neither pity, love nor fear.

Devine was a native of Waterford, Ireland, where he was born in the year 1840, and was accordingly 33 years old at the time of his death.

He was of medium size, sharp features, dark-blue eyes, a low forehead, and generally repulsive expression of countenance.

He arrived in San Francisco in the year 1863, as a seaman on the clipper ship Young America.

On the voyage hither he distinguished himself as a quarrelsome fellow, and was frequently confined in irons to restore the discipline of the ship.

After squandering the wages he received in a short spell of carousing on shore, he was driven to the sea again and made a voyage to China, returning in the spring of 1865. He then obtained employment as a runner for sailor boarding-houses, in which capacity he perpetrated innumerable deeds of ruffianism in the “shanghaing” of sailors and citizens on outward bound ships. Shortly after engaging in this vocation he received the title of

“The Chicken.”

Which was endearingly conferred by one of his fellows, as significant of his prowess in a prize-fight.

Devine had four notable encounters of this order, in the city and vicinity, and displayed remarkable endurance and determination, though not always successful.

His career from the time of setting himself on shore was one continuous round of crime, and he is well suspected of having a knowledge of the manner in which many a corpse found floating in the bay, with fractured skull and rifled pockets, yielded up i[t]s life. His record on the police register shows

Seventy-Nine Arrests!

Up to May 16, 1871, when his final arrest for the crime of murder was made.

The charges against him embraced all manner of crimes, principally robberies and assaults with deadly weapons, it being his custom to assault his victims with slung-shot and brass-knuckles. His recorded crimes, however, are not supposed to embrace any near approach to the ull measure of enormities that were charged upon his guilty soul.

He was capable of the most savage treachery, and on one occasion attempted the murder of a prize-fighter named Tommy Chandler, by springing upon him from behind a door with a heavy iron bar. Being foiled in this, he subsequently shot Chandler, but not inflicting fatal injury, he got off with a short term of imprisonment on conviction of assault to murder.

A Characteristic Exploit.

On the 8th of June, 1867, about 6 o’clock in the morning, Devine assailed an aged German lady, named Mary Martin, as she was walking along Merchant street, near Battery, tore the pocket from her dress, and robbed her of a purse containing a check for [obscure] and $25 in coin.

For this robbery he was arrested, and released on bail, for notwithstanding the character he bore, he was usually enabled to find friends to go upon his bond in a certain part of the city.

When the case came up for trial officers went in search of Mrs. Martin, who had resided at a house on Powell street, as the important witness for the prosecution of Devine. The lady had disappeared.

What became of her was never known; but it was possible that Devine might have told. Passing over a list of comparative minor offences, such as knocking down and robbing people, the next noticeable affair in which this remarkable criminal figured was the

Attempted Murder of Miss McDonald.

On the night of the 9th, October, 1867, Miss Martha McDonald was standing in front of her place of residence, at the Mission, when she was suddenly seized by two men who were masked.

She was gagged by a handkerchief being forced into her mouth, and prevented from giving any alarm. In this condition the men dragged her a distance of two blocks and a half, to the bridge which crosses Mission Creek at Sixteenth street.

One of the two then started, according to the directions of his companion to “get the carriage.”

Being left in the custody of one only, Miss McDonald made a desperate effort to release herself. The fellow attempted to chloroform her; but the drug being spilled from the bottle, he then endeavored to secure her with a strap.

At this juncture the other man returned, and she heard the exclamation, “kill her, kill her!” A moment after she was pushed off the bridge, and fell into the muddy waters of the creek, while the two men who had abducted her ran away.

Slowly and surely she was sinking into the muddy bottom, with no assistance at hand, until the water was about her neck. Fortunately an alarm of fire started some person past the locality, and her cries of distress being heard, she was discovered and rescued.

Devine was arrested as one of the participants in this crime, and Miss McDonald positively identified him by his voice. Devine extricated himself from the affair by proving an alibi, it appearing that he was serving a term in the County Jail at the time of the attempted murder.

It subsequently transpired, however, that he held the privileged position at the County Jail of “outside trusty,” and was permitted to travel to all parts of the city at will in the performance of errands for prisoners in more restricted limits. And more than this, he was abroad at the very time the abduction of Miss McDonald was made.

The Loss of a Hand.

In the month of May, 1868, Devine was indulging in one of his periodical carousing spells, and often bringing terror to several of the resorts on his beat at the city front, he entered a boarding house kept by William Maitland, on Battery street.

Here he flourished a huge knife with the recklessness of a savage, and caused a precipitate retreat of all who happened to be in the place.

The proprietor had been asleep in the second story of the house, and hearing the uproar, came came down for a reconnaissance. Devine immediately started for him when he made his appearance, but Maitland was not of so yielding a disposition as to be driven from his own castle, and closing with Devine, he succeeded in disarming him.

The latter then made an attempt to recover the knife, when Maitland with a powerful stroke cut him across the wrist. The blade, by wonderful chance, entered the wrist joint, and the completely severed hand fell to the floor.

Devine was appalled for once in his life, and hurriedly departed; but presently he returned and demanded his lost hand, which Maitland kicked out upon the sidewalk to him. Devine took the severed member and hastened to a drug store, where he implored a clerk to try and sew it on again. But the injury was irreparable.

Devine as a Merchant.

After a season of retirement in the County Hospital, Devine emerged as far repaired as medical science would permit, and being a cripple, his condition excited the pity of boarding-house masters and others at the city front with whom he had been associated.

A contribution was made among them, amounting to $800, to enable Devine to establish himself in business by keeping a cigar stand.

He took the money, but instead of following the advice of his benefactors he squandered the whole sum in a few weeks of dissipation, and again returned to the pursuit of crime with all his previous energy.

He was associated with a woman named Mary Dolan, as bad as himself, and who was punished by terms of imprisonment in the County Jail and Penitentiary.

From the time of losing his hand up to his final arrest, he perpetrated numerous larcenies, some of considerable amounts, and was always busily engaged in thieving when not confined in jail.

A complete history of this man and his offenses would be one of the most appalling in the annals of crime. Such was John Devine, and rarely has the slow grip of justice overtaken a criminal more richly deserving of the severest penalty known to the law.

Murder of August Kamp.

The crime which John Devine has now expiated with his life, was one of the most cruel and wanton ever recorded in a civilized community, and could only have been accomplished by one utterly depraved.

It was in perfect keeping with the whole life and character of Devine, who had become callous to every impulse that elevates a man above the merest savage.

August Kamp was an unsuspecting young German, without relatives in the country. On the 10th of May, 1871, he arrived in the city from Antioch, where he had been employed, bringing with him his savings, to the amount of about $120.

He started immediately in search of employment, and while making his inquiries along the city front, he was met by Devine, who offered to procure him a situation on a fishing vessel.

Elated with this promise, young Kamp was persuaded to loan $20 to Devine, on the understanding that it would be repaid him the following day. The money was not returned as agreed, and Kamp finally suspecting the true character of his debtor, importuned him earnestly for his pay. Devine put him off repeatedly, at one time pretending that he had nothing but greenbacks on hand, and again making some other excuse.

On the 15th of May, Kamp having again demanded his pay, Devine told him that if he wanted the money very bad, he must go with him to his mother’s ranch, beyond Bay View. Accordingly the two started for the imaginary ranch, walking as far as Long Bridge, when they boarded one of the Bay View cars. On reaching the terminus of the railroad, the two got off the car and walked along the road. After passing the Five-Mile House, Devine pointed off to one side, saying that his mother’s ranch was in that direction, and by striking off across the fields instead of following the road they might save a distance of one mile out of two. Young Kamp assented and the two started across a lonely stretch of land, through vales and over hills, until a point was reached which the murderer thought sufficiently secluded for carrying out his design.

Kamp stooped down to crawl between the rails of a fence, Devine walking behind him, when the latter suddenly drew a pistol and fired the fatal shot, the ball entering Kamp’s skull behind the right ear.

Devine then ran away, supposing he had effectually dispatched his victim, and was seen hastening back alone to the railroad terminus.

Kamp was shortly after discovered by a Spaniard, who was herding sheep in the locality, and being still able to walk, he was assisted to a saloon on the road, and from thence brought in to the city and given in charge of the authorities.

From the representations which the mortally wounded youth could make, and other circumstances, the police were immediately confident that Devine was his murderer, and measures were at once instituted for his arrest.

He was traced to various places in the city, where he had boasted of obtaining money by an easy method, admitted to several that he had shot a man and endeavored to dispose of a revolver.

He was finally captured on board a steamer at Meiggs’ wharf, which was just about crossing over to Marin county, and the revolver, with two chambers discharged, was still in his possession.

At the City Prison he was placed in the midst of fifteen or twenty persons, and Kamp, who was yet rational, readily singled him out as the murderer. He walked up and placed his hand on Devine, saying, “You are the man that shot me.” Kamp was taken to the County Hospital, and every effort made to save his life, but without avail.

Just before his death, which occurred on the 5th of May, an effort was made to take his ante-mortem deposition, but unfortunately the Coroner arrived too late, and the important evidence of the murdered man was not secured in the case.

The chain of circumstances presented in the several trials, however, made out a case against the accused as strong circumstantial evidence could be drawn, and a doubt of his guilt was hardily admissible.

The First Trial

Was brought in the Twelth District Court, before Judge McKinstry, on the 20th of February, 187, and occupied eight days, resulting in a verdict according to the indictment of “murder in the first degree.” The Court sentenced Devine to be executed on the 25th of April, 1872.

Judge Tyler, counsel for the condemned, appealed to the Supreme Court for a new trial on mere technical grounds, his principal point having reference to a minor discrepancy of evidence of one witness as taken before the Coroner at the trial. Although the several points did not affect the merits of the case in the least, the appeal was successful, and to the efforts of most indefatigable counsel the wretched man was indebted to an extension of his lease of life a full year.

The case was brought to a second trial in March last, in the same court. In the meantime an important witness had died, and the prisoner and his counsel were exceedingly hopeful of founding complications on this circumstance equal to another successful appeal to the Supreme Court.

After another tedious trial the inevitable verdict of “guilty” fell upon the ear of the doomed man for the second time, and he was again sentenced to be executed on Friday the 9th of May.

Hope was still buoyant in his breast, relying upon the determined goal of his counsel, until the 7th, when the announcement was made that the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the lower court, and his fate was sealed beyond the further probability of human interference.

By the earnest intercession of the spiritual adviser of the condemned prisoner, the Governor was persuaded to grant a brief reprieve of five days, in the hope that the guilty wretch, with the certainty of speedy death before him, might finally yield to the ministrations of his anxious spiritual adviser, Rev. Father Spreckles, and meet his end in a penitential spirit.

During his long term of imprisonment Devine manifested a bearing of bravado, never believing that merited retribution would finally overtake him, and on several occasions he laughed to scorn kindly persons who ought to impress him with a realization of his terrible position, and turn him to preparation for another life. By a

Remarkable Coincidence

His execution occurred two years to a day from the commission of the murderous act that consigned him to death at the hands of justice, and in his case it may be said, “God’s mills grind slow but sure.”

After receiving his brief reprieve from the Governor, Devine realized that no earthly interference could avail him further, and he relinquished all hope of life.

At his own solicitation all visitors were ecluded from his cell with the exception of his spiritual advisers, and he gave himself earnestly to preparations for the awful change that awaited him, in the few hours that still remained.

At times he wept bitterly when exhorted to a contemplation of his guilty life and true repentance, and the consolations of religious faith seemed to reconcile him to his fate, and enable him to await his end with fortitude.

On Monday he received the Sacrament of Communion from Rev. Father Spreckles, and Archbishop Alemany conferred upon him confirmation in the Roman Catholic Church.

On the succeeding days Devine assumed an air of cheerfulness. On Tuesday he asked permission of the Sheriff to be shaved, which was granted, the precaution first being taken to bind him securely to guard against any suicidal designs. His ostensible wife, Mary Dolan, was in jail at the time of the execution, having been committed a few weeks since for her common offence of habitual drunkenness.

Parting With His Son.

Devine also had a son, a child of six years of age, whom he had not seen for several years, and he expressed an earnest desire to see him before his death.

The Sheriff and his deputies were anxious to gratify this last request, and visited the various charitable institutions in the city yesterday, endeavoring to find the child.

Devine last heard of him at the Protestant Orphan Asylum, where he had caused him to be placed immediately after his arrest for murder, the mother, Mary Dolan, being unfit to care or provide for him in consequence of her continual drunkenness and frequent detentions in jail.

The lad had been removed from the Orphan Asylum, but the Sheriff happily discovered him in charge of the Ladies’ Relief Society, comfortably provided for.

When the child arrived at the cell of his wretched father last evening, Devine was much affected, and exhibited instincts of humanity he had never known before. He embraced his offspring tenderly, wept over him, and implored him to shun the evil ways that had brought his father to ignominious death, and when the lad was finally removed, he clung to him with convulsive throbs, as if parting with the only object that had ever awakened the emotion of affection in his breast.

Last Hours of the Doomed Man.

Devine retired at about 10 o’clock last night after devotion with his spiritual adviser. He slept soundly through the night until 5 o’clock this morning, when he was awakened by the Jailor.

In reply to the inquiries of the officer, he said that he had enjoyed refreshing slumber, as one could who had a clear conscience. He dressed himself with care, and gave much attention to combing his hair neatly and arranging his toilet, having been provided with a new suit of black and a pair of slippers.

At 8 o’clock he ate a hearty breakfast, and shortly after his spiritual adviser, Rev. Father Spreckles, Archbishop Alameney [sic] and two Sisters of Mercy arrived. The doomed man devoted the remaining few hours of his life to fervent supplications for mercy.

As the hour for the execution approached, the wickets in all the cells were closed, the “trustees” allowed the limits of the Jail were locked up, and the condemned murderer Russell was taken to a remote part of the jail and locked in the room formerly occupied by Mrs. Fair.

At 11 o’clock the reporters of the press were admitted and allowed to inspect the preparations for the execution.

The Scaffold

Was laid across the railings of the upper corridor at the north end, the trap in the centre permitting the body to drop to the lower corridor within about three feet of the floor, the rope allowing a fall of six feet.

The gallows beam was extended above under the skylights, the ends resting in the ventillating apertures on either side.

On the west side of the scaffold an iron rod run up, to which was attached a cord, secured to a ring in one of the cell doors, the slipping of which drew the bolt by a weight and allowed the trap to fall. The gallows was the same used in previous executions, the last murderer who had stood thereon being the Chinaman, Chung Wong, who was executed in 1865.

At twenty minutes to 12 the Sisters of Mercy took their leave of Devine, and shortly after, attended by the Sheriff and the priests, Devine was conducted from the No. 1 cell near the entrance of the lower corridor, which he had occupied since his fate became sealed, to No. 41 cell in the second corridor, which was located nearly opposite the steps leading upon the scaffold. He looked pale and haggard, but a smile rested upon his countenance as he passed the group of reporters at the foot of the stairway.

He ascended the stairway with a light elastic step, and seemed to look car[e]lessly at the gallows as he tripped along the gallery.

At half past 12 o’clock an immense crowd had gathered in the street in front of the jail, and on all sides of the building where a position might be obtained to observe even the grim walls within which the dread scene of violent death was being enacted.

The Sheriff then admitted all those who had received permission to be present, to the number of about two hundred. The spectators included several Sheriffs from adjoining counties, members of the Board of Supervisors, physicians, city officials, and upwards of thirty reporters of the press, among the latter being representatives of some of the Eastern papers, and artists for the New York illustrated journals.

The reporters were assigned a position directly in front of the scaffold, in the west gallery of the upper corridor, and the physicians took their places within the line on the floor of the lower corridor.

The prisoner remained in his cell engaged in his final devotions, while the tramping of many feet and the subdued murmur of voices without, reminded him of the relentless hand of Justice, eager to close his career.

The corridors, above and below, were greatly crowded, while the side openings, below the sky lights, in either, were completely occupied, their appearance suggestive of the private boxes of a public exhibition.

The Execution.

At a quarter to 1 o’clock, the Sheriff directed his deputies to their positions upon the scaffold, and immediately after he entered the cell of the doomed man for a parting interview of brief duration.

On emerging, Sheriff Adams mounted the scaffold and stated to the spectators that it was the wish of Devine that all should preserve silence and ask him no questions.

At two minutes before 1 o’clock the Sheriff opened the door of the cell and Devine emerged, carrying a crucifix in his hand and followed by Father Spreckles. He ascended the steps to the scaffold with closed eyes, manifesting symptoms of weakness, and though bearing up with great power of nerve, the expression of his countenance and the twitching muscles of his throat indicated the welling up of inexpressible agony of soul.

While standing upon the scaffold his eyes remained closed, while Father Spreckles, taking the crucifix, continued whispering the consolations of the Church in his ear.

The death-warrant was hurriedly read by Deputy Lamott, but Devine gave no heed thereto, attending closely to the ministrations of Father Spreckles and frequently kissing the crucifix with much fervor as it was placed to his lips.

At the conclusion of the reading of the warrant, ailor McKenzie bound the doomed man with straps. One was passed round his breast and pinioned the arms at the elbows, another at the waist pinioned the wrists, and two other straps were secured about the knees and the ankles. The rope was then placed about his neck, the large knot of the noose fixed under the left ear.

Last Scene of All.

The murderer now stood upon the verge of the unknown. He opened his eyes for the first time upon the scaffold ere quitting the warm precincts of the cheerful day, and cast one longing, lingering look behind.

The bright sunshine shimmered through the skylights into the gloomy corridor, and wrought the shadow of the gallows-beam before him.

Loud laughter and the murmur of the thoughtless crowd without disturbed the awful stillness that reigned within.

Nerving himself for the last moment, Devine exclaimed with a loud voice, “Oh, my sweet Jesus, unto thy hands I commend my spirit. Amen.” He kissed the crucifix again, and the black cap was drawn over his head.

The spectators awaited with bated breath.

A moment more and a dull grating sound lie the swinging of a gate, broke the solemn stillness, and the soul of the murderer had passed out.

As the trap swung, Devine dropped about six feet, a sharp snap indicating that his neck was broken. A few convulsive throes succeeded for a moment with drawing up of the knees, and death resulted speedily with little pain. The physicians made the usual observations, and pronounced life entirely extinct in less than 15 minutes. The execution was most successfully carried out in every detail.

The spectators commenced leaving the jail immediately after the fall of the drop, excepting the few whose presence was required to sign as witnesses of the due execution of the sentence. The large crowd without lingered until the afternoon was well advanced, in morbid curiosity, discussing the death and career of the departed murderer.

On this day..

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

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