1918: A day in the death penalty around the U.S.

Add comment May 24th, 2019 Headsman

From the Pueblo Chieftain (May 25, 1918):

Salt Lake City, May 24. — Howard H. Deweese, who was shot here today for the murder of his wife, Fannie Fisher Deweese, left a grim legacy for his wife’s former husband. It is a silk handkerchief and the bullets which passed thru the heart of Deweese, first passed thru the bit of silk which he had pinned over his chest.

Before his execution Deweese secured the promise of the warden of the state prison to forward the handkerchief, together with a note to Fisher in New York. The letter, dated at the Utah state penitentiary last Monday, reads:

Mr. H.W. Fisher, 150 Second avenue, New York:

Greetings:

In accordance with customs observed by certain people, I herewith conform with precedents and law governing the conduct of aforesaid people. I have rigidly adhered to my vows. You have violated yours. Therefore, put your house in order. The allotted time customary in such cases is yours. The souvenir enclosed herewith (by the warden of this institution) will doubtless serve to convince you that time, distance, political influence or money cannot change the inexorable workings of things decreed by men who do not hesitate in risking all, even life, for things they have sworn to uphold.

The U.B.C. thru one who has proven loyal, bids you ‘prepare.’ It is written.

(Signed)
J.E.W.

The initials affixed at the bottom of the note stand for Deweese’s alias — J.E. Warren. The “U.B.C.” Deweese explained just before his execution, was the initials of the “Universal Brotherhood Club of New York.”


From the Kansas City Star (May 24, 1918):

DALLAS, TEX. May 23. — A claim that the idea for the Red Cross poster, “The Greatest Mother in the World,” originated in the mind of Leonard Dodd, who with Walter Stevenson is sentenced to hang here tomorrow for murder, was placed here today before the state board of pardons at Austin as part of a plea for commutation of sentence.

Council for Dodd informed the board a draft of the poster had been sent by him to the Red Cross headquarters at Washington and that it was later drawn by an Eastern artist. Dodd, Stevenson, and Emmett Vestal, also convicted of murder, will be hanged tomorrow unless Governor Hobby commutes their sentences. [Dodd and Stevenson hanged; as for Vestal’s … read on. -ed.]


From the Arizona Republic, Jan. 1, 1955:

Evangelist Emmett T. (Texas Slim) Vestal, a man twice condemned to die in the electric chair, is in Phoenix conducting a revival, and illustrating that “no matter how low a man can get, he still can be saved by following Christ.”

For more than 20 years, Mr. Vestal has been preaching in churches throughout the country, and recounting his experiences as bank robber, drug addict, and gang member.

Services will be conducted every night through next Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Revival Center, 902 N. 24th St.

In 1917 he shot a rival gang leader who tried to ambush him near Victoria, Tex. and was sentenced to die May 24, 1918. Five minutes before the hanging, he was granted a reprieve by the late Governor W.P. Hobby.

He returned to prison, contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a state hospital from which he escaped. Law officials found him in 1926 in St. Louis and took him back to Texas for a new trial because the state had changed his sentence from hanging to electrocution.

He was again convicted and sentenced to die, this time in the electric chair. Three days before the electrocution, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by the late Governor Miriam (Ma) Ferguson. Three days after that she granted him a full pardon.

Methodist church workers taught him to read and write and gave him Christian education while he was in prison. After his release he began his evangelic career. He was ordained a baptist minister.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Last Minute Reprieve,Murder,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Shot,Texas,USA,Utah

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1903: Peter Mortensen, divinely accused

2 comments November 20th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1903, Peter Mortensen was shot over a lumber bill.

The evidence against Peter Mortensen was circumstantial: a moonlight witness, some unexplained cash, and a perceived insufficiency of vigor in insisting upon his innocence when suspicion fell upon him.

Though this much sounds pretty speculative, Mortensen’s very direct pecuniary interest in Hay’s death was harder to wave away. Mortensen, a Salt Lake contractor, owed money to George Ernest Romney’s* Pacific Lumber company. On the evening of December 16, 1901, he summoned Romney’s employee James R. Hay — who was also Mortensen’s friend, neighbor, and fellow-teacher at a Mormon Sunday school — to pay up.

Hay never made it home.

The next day, Mortensen had a receipt for the payment in Hay’s hand, and Hay had a cashless grave and a bullet hole in his head. Rarely have means, motive, and opportunity converged so exactly.

Public sentiment against Mortensen was so overwhelming** that selecting an impartial-ish jury proceeded at a weeks-long crawl as Mortensen’s attorney met prospect after prospect by bluntly asking whether they had formed an opinion as to his man’s guilt. Prospect after prospect confirmed that they had done. By the end, the court had been reduced to issuing “open venires” bypassing the regular jury summons process and authorizing anyone handy to be inducted into the jury pool. Deputies scoured Salt Lake City like press gangs, hunting for possible jurymen.

In all, the court dismissed some 600 prospective jurors for bias (which was quite a lot for the time), and ran through $4,500 in that process alone (likewise).

Those finally seated had to weigh, along with the more conventional indicia of guilt, the inflammatory witness testimony of James Hay’s father … who said he didn’t just have a pretty strong suspicion about the defendant, but that he actually knew Mortensen did it. “God revealed it to me,” the elder Hay said with “tears streaming down his cheeks” according to a report in the Idaho Daily Statesman of June 6, 1902.

He appeared to me by the Holy Ghost and put the words of His Spirit into my mouth. I had to utter them, for I knew they were true. I cannot and will not deny it here, neither will I deny it when I meet my God on the last day.

This is not the only manifestation I received. On Tuesday noon I saw the trail of blood leading from the railroad tracks to where my son-in-law was buried. I saw it in a vision just as plainly as when I afterwards visited the spot.

Again, this is judicial testimony in an American courtroom in the 20th century.

The fact that it appeared — and that the trial court refused a defense demand to instruct the jury not to consider supernatural visions in the light of real evidence — formed the central argument of Mortensen’s appeal. In the end, Utah’s Supreme Court refused to vacate the sentence. Still, the weird appearance of “divine revelation evidence” in a Utah courtroom led the Mormon patriarch Joseph F. Smith to issue a finding distancing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from any embarrassing mummery:

[N]o member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should, for one moment, regard such testimony as admissible in a court of law, and to make the case perfectly clear it may be further stated that such evidence would not be permissible even in a Church court, where rules of evidence, though not so technical, are founded largely upon the same principles that govern the rules of evidence in a court of law. Any attempt, therefore, to make it appear that such evidence is in keeping with the tenets of the “Mormon” faith is wholly unjustified

About six weeks before Mortensen’s execution, a prison break took place at the penitentiary. It’s been given out latterly that the arrogant Mortensen was so unpopular even with his fellow-prisoners that they intentionally left him stuck in his cell. 1903 press accounts appear to indicate otherwise — that he was not the only convict left stuck in his cell, and that Mortensen’s particular rum luck wasn’t a social lack but a digital one: somebody dropped the necessary set of keys. Either way, there was no way out, and neither when Utah’s governor interviewed Mortensen personally to see about his mercy application. Never mind his popularity with prisoners; Mortensen’s continued insistence on innocence while pleading for his life was the real diplomatic failure.

Mortensen selected shooting rather than hanging as his method of death, and went to it “firm as a rock.” He left only a last statement repeating his vociferous and widely disbelieved denial of Hay’s murder.

To the world I want to say and swear by the heavens above, by the earth beneath, and by all I hold near and dear to me on this earth, that I am not guilty of that cowardly murder of my dearest friend. I ask therefore no man’s pardon for aught that I may have done in life. I am confident that my life is an example to most people. I lay no claim — please strike out the last two words — I do not say that I am better or more worthy of respect of the world than the average man, but I have done my duty to my father and mother, my brothers and sister, and to other near relatives. I have done my absolute duty toward my wife and my five little babies. May God keep and care for those sweet darlings.


Salt Lake Telegram, Nov. 20, 1903.

* Yes, those Romneys. George Ernest Romney‘s significantly younger first cousin George Wilcken Romney became Governor of Michigan, and was in turn the father of the 2012 Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney. The mutual grandfather of George E. and George W. designed the St. George Tabernacle.

** Even Mortensen’s wife thought him guilty, for he had gone out that fatal evening of the 16th with Hay, and returned an hour later “deathly pale.” However, while God’s hearsay to Mr. Hay was available in open court, Mrs. Mortensen’s evidence was not: Utah law prohibited wives testifying against their husbands.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Murder,Shot,USA,Utah

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1896: Charles Thiede, the first since Utah statehood

Add comment August 7th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1896, seven months after admittance as the 45th U.S. state,* Utah hanged Charles Thiede.

By birth a Pomeranian — the place, not the dog — this Salt Lake City saloon owner had gone to sea as a youth and had the hard drinking to show for it. He was plenty notorious before death row for getting into the drink himself, in which condition he often disported himself pummeling his wife, Mary.

When his wife turned up “mysteriously” done to death — her throat twice slashed — outside of Thiede’s tavern one fine spring night in 1894, it didn’t take much connecting of the dots to infer the guilt of her abusive husband, who also was the one who happened to “find” the body. Thiede, all the way to the end, would maintain his innocence, which nobody believed; a fistful of private detectives Thiede threw at the investigation in the weeks leading up to his death turned up little but a weird story about Mary dallying with a vengeful bootlegger. (Or Charles Thiede’s own going hypothesis that some wandering Swedes tried to rape Mary.)

Still, it does have to be allowed that beating a spouse in private, however discreditable the deed, has a different character than slashing her throat on a public road. This was a distinct m.o., and there was little specific cause anyone could point to for Thiede’s having done it. Circumstantial evidence has a way of stacking up against you when you’re known as a violent drunk.

According to Frontier Justice in the Wild West, an Oregon firm was paid $150 to set up a scaffold (hidden from public view within a palisade) using the “twitch-up” design in vogue in the late 19th century. Thiede wasn’t going to drop: he was going to be jerked upward by dropping a counterbalance.

The hanging rope passed through a hole in the crossbeam, over two pulleys, and down the side, where a 430-pound weight was attached. Under the noose was a low wooden platform upon which the condemned man was to stand while being prepared. In the entire construction of the gallows, not a nail or pin was used; it was bolted together so that it could be disassembled and used again.


This illustration of the setup for Charles Thiede’s hanging appeared in the Aug. 11, 1896 Salt Lake Semi-Weekly Tribune. The caption explains the apparatus: “The executioner was concealed in the tent at right,and at a signal from the Sheriff pulled the hidden lever, which drew back (A) the projecting piece of steel which supported (B) the iron bar on which the 430-pound cube of lead rested, causing the weight to drop, and the body to be jerked upward.”

This clever device worked perfectly, if the aforesaid Semi-Weekly Tribune is to be believed, but it would never see action again. Most Utahans preferred the state’s other choice alternative for execution, the firing squad; there wouldn’t be another hanging there until 1912.

Thiede himself was secretly buried in nearby Sandy, Utah, whose citizens were so incensed at becoming involuntary wardens of the killer’s mortal remains that an armed standoff between Sandy residents and Thiede’s people was only dialed down when the latter agreed to remove the remains from the cemetery proper and bury them in an adjacent feld.

* When the U.S. Supreme Court remanded the case to Utah shortly before the hanging, it at first accidentally addressed its order to the Territory of Utah.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,USA,Utah

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1938: The terrified John Deering

3 comments October 31st, 2009 Headsman

We meet people in these pages who go to the scaffold joking, or sarcastic, or cocksure.

Humans bear up to proximity of death with every psychological defense in the book, but even if surprisingly few die in naked terror, make no mistake this Halloween: there’s a reason the executioner is scary.

Shot Through the Heart

Habitual criminal John Deering had a date with a Salt Lake City firing squad this date in 1938.

If anyone should be nonchalant about being ripped open by bullets, it’s a guy who eschewed a prison sentence in Michigan and confessed to murder to get himself extradited to Utah to face capital murder charges — saying that he and the world would both be better off with him dead.

The 39-year-old put on a cool front, but how steady was he, really? In a weird experiment, Deering agreed to be hooked to an electrocardiogram that measured his heart rate during his last moments.

Here comes the science!

The heart of John W. Deering, holdup murderer, beat three times faster than normal just before he was put to death today by a firing squad in the state prison here. The unprecedented recording was termed valuable to heart disease specialists as it showed clearly the effect of fear.

An electro-cardiograph film, recorded with the condemned man’s permission, showed that Deering’s heart beat jumped from normal 72 to 180, although he appeared outwardly calm. It maintained that rate for the several minutes required to complete preliminaries for the execution.

When the doomed man was asked for a last statement his heart beat fluttered wildly, then calmed after he spoke until bullets ended his life. The heart beat stopped 15.6 seconds after the bullets struck, but he was not pronounced dead until two and a half minutes after the five shots rang out. (Chicago Tribune, Nov. 1, 1938)

Still no cure for cancer.

This guy is obviously not to be confused with his tragic Hollywood contemporary of the same name.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Murder,Shot,USA,Utah,Volunteers

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