Tag Archives: leavenworth

1870: William Dickson, the last in Kansas for a lifetime

On this date in 1870, William Dickson’s hanging in the Leavenworth jail yard accidentally put the kibosh on Kansas executions for the next 74 years.

The Sunflower State entered the Union bleeding and had not shown particularly reticent about capital punishment during its first decade of statehood, the 1860s.

Dickson was just an illiterate laborer who murdered a pedlar in Delaware township — but the public hanging brought out the worst in the mob, and “During the execution order was maintained only by the most strenuous efforts, and repeated threats.” (Leavenworth Bulletin, Aug. 9, 1870)

The distasteful scene moved the legislature to revise the state’s capital statutes, unusually placing the responsibility of actually ordering hanging dates directly on the governor instead of a judge. (Such dates also had to be “not less than one year from the time of conviction.”)

The ensuing decades of Gilded Age governors proved perfectly happy never to do so. So, even though courts kept issuing death sentences, they were never carried out. Kansas finally abolished the death penalty outright in 1907. It was restored only in 1935, and the first hanging under the reinstated statute — the first since Bill Dickson — finally took place in 1944.

1961: John A. Bennett, the last American military execution (so far)

As of this date, it’s been 48 years since the United States military last carried out an execution — the Fort Leavenworth hanging* of John Arthur Bennett for rape.

An epileptic black soldier with a family history of mental illness, Bennett had enlisted to find a way up out of sharecropping. Instead, on Christmas Eve 1954, he drunkenly raped a 12-year-old girl near his base in Austria.

He spent six years awaiting execution — “six years,” observed the Los Angeles Times, “in which six other black soldiers were hanged while all four of the white men — many of them multiple murderers — were saved.”

Bennett dodged two execution dates, once receiving his stay during his last meal, but a seemingly compelling plea for clemency — the victim herself, and her parents, asked for mercy — availed Bennett nothing. His last frantic plea to the new president, John F. Kennedy, was dispatched with only hours yet to live.

I beg in the name of God … Will you please in the name of God and mercy spare my life?”

No dice. Kennedy was preoccupied.

Coincidentally, but poignantly for this case, the Kirk Douglas vehicle A Town Without Pity opened a month before Bennett’s execution. In that film (trailer here), four American servicemen face capital trial for the rape of a German girl — and Douglas, as their lawyer, struggles to talk pity into someone so he won’t be obliged to humiliate the victim in court in order to save his clients from the noose.

The victim’s father in that movie is so blinded by his lust for vengeance that he forces Douglas to destroy his own daughter: striking contrast with the real-life father of Bennett’s flesh-and-blood victim, who wrote in support of clemency for his daughter’s assailant, “I know how hard it is for the parents when their own child is so close to the verge of death.”

Bennett’s milestone, however, is hardly assured of lasting much beyond this 49th year.

In 2008, President George W. Bush affirmed the death sentence of condemned Army cook Ronald Gray, the first such action by any U.S. president since Bennett’s day. According to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s Death Row USA most current as of this writing,** Gray is one of nine prisoners currently on the U.S. military’s death row.

* Curious to know about the procedure? The Library of Congress has that period’s Procedure for Military Executions — complete with exact diagrams — online in pdf form.

** Death Row USA, Summer 2008 (direct pdf link)