This date in 1936 marks the first and only occasion that the federal government hanged a (non-murdering) kidnapper under the Lindbergh Law.
Even before the notorious Lindbergh baby kidnapping case, the “snatch racket” of kidnappings for ransom had claimed a firm foothold among Depression-era America’s moral panics. The bill that would become known as the Lindbergh Law was actually introduced in Congress three months before little Charles Lindbergh, Jr. disappeared out the window of his New Jersey nursery. Its sponsors were Missouri lawmakers concerned that gang-ridden St. Louis was becoming a kidnapping hub, like the high-profile 1931 abduction of Dr. Isaac Kelley.*
The theory behind the bill — and this was particularly relevant to St. Louis, a border port right across from Illinois and accessible via the Mississippi River to the whole Midwest — was that kidnappers could more easily ply their nefarious trade by carrying their hostages over a convenient border and exploiting the respective states’ inability to coordinate with one another. By elevating interstate kidnapping to a federal felony, the idea was to put manhunts into the hands of the FBI, whose jurisdiction was the entire United States.
The Lindbergh case provided just the right impetus for Congress to advance into law a bill that might otherwise have died quietly in committee. There’s just something to be said for being the one with a plan at the right time … even though the Lindbergh baby was found dead four miles away from the house he was plucked out of, and probably never crossed a state line himself.
At any rate, the Lindbergh Law also made kidnapping alone a capital crime, even if the abductee was not harmed. And it is for this that Arthur Gooch ascended into barstool trivia.
Gooch’s life and case are the focus of this 125-page Master’s thesis (pdf), but the long and short of it is that Gooch and a buddy named Ambrose Nix were on the lam after busting out of the Holdenville, Okla., jail, and ended up heading south to Texas.
They committed a robbery in Tyler, Texas on November 25, 1934. The next day, while stopped with a flat at a service station in Paris, Texas — close by the Texas-Oklahoma border — two policemen approached the suspicious vehicle. In the ensuing struggle, Nix managed to pull a gun on everyone and force the subdued cops into the back of their own patrol car, which the fugitives then requisitioned to high-tail it over the Oklahoma border. There they released their captives unharmed. There had never been a ransom attempt.
A month later, Gooch was arrested in Oklahoma — while Nix died in the shootout, leaving his partner alone to face the music.
Arthur Gooch was a career criminal, and the fact that he violated the Lindbergh Law was easy to see, but his crime also wasn’t exactly the scenario that legislation’s drafters had foremost in mind. In fact, Gooch also underscores one of the oft-unseen dimensions of the death penalty in practice: the discretionary power of prosecutors and judges at the intake end of the whole process.
Gooch attempted to plead guilty to his charge sheet, but his judge, former Oklahoma governor Robert Lee Williams, refused to accept it. Williams was explicit that his reason was that the Lindbergh Law’s language required a jury verdict to impose a death sentence.
By contrast, in October of 1934 — a month before the legally fateful confrontation at the Paris service station — a black farmhand named Claude Neal suspected of the rape-murder of a white girl was dragged out of protective custody in Alabama and taken across the adjacent Florida state line, where an angry mob lynched him. Despite the urging of the NAACP, FDR’s Attorney General Homer Stille Cummings completely refused to interpret Neal’s abduction as a Lindbergh Law kidnapping. The two cases even turned on the same phrase of the Lindbergh statute: interstate kidnapping “for ransom or otherwise.” While Cummings decided pre-emptively that “or otherwise” didn’t cover lynch law, one of his U.S. attorneys would go to the Supreme Court in January 1936 to argue for a broad interpretation of that phrase in the context of Gooch’s appeal.
But even without a comparison to Claude Neal’s murder, the justice of executing Arthur Gooch was hotly disputed by a vigorous clemency campaign. The chance intercession of a state line had elevated a small-time crime committed further to avoiding arrest into a capital offense, basically on a technicality. “It would be a rotten shame to hang that boy when a short jail term is his desert,” one Oklahoma City society woman argued to the Jeffersonian Club. “Gooch was given an application of the poor man’s law.” It seems clear that for Judge Williams as for President Roosevelt (who denied Gooch’s clemency appeal) the result was heavily influenced by the political exigencies of pushing a tough-on-crime standard, and by Gooch’s previous history as a crook. (He’d broken out of jail in the first place because he was a member of a group of local hoods in Okmulgee that committed several armed robberies.)
Gooch was philosophical at the end. “It’s kind of funny — dying,” he mused. “I think I know what it will be like. I’ll be standing there, and all of a sudden everything will be black, then there’ll be a light again. There’s got to be a light again — there’s got to be.” We can’t speak to what Gooch saw after everything went black, but it definitely wasn’t “all of a sudden”: Oklahoma’s executioner, Richard Earnest Owen, was an old hand with his state’s electric chair, but the federal execution method was hanging, which Owen had never before performed (and never would again). Gooch took 15 minutes to strangle at the end of the rope.
Arthur Gooch on the gallows
* The Kelley kidnapping, unsolved for several years, eventually traced to the strange character Nellie Muench. Readers (at least stateside ones) who follow that trailhead should be sure to keep an eye out for the cameo appearance of Missouri judge Rush Limbaugh, Sr. — grandfather of the present-day talk radio blowhard.