1906: William Williams, the last hanged in Minnesota

4 comments February 13th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1906, Minnesota hanged a Cornish immigrant for the murder of his homosexual lover … and hanged him so clumsily that it never hanged again.

William Williams shot Johnny Keller dead after Keller’s mother intervened in the teenagers’ relationship. A series of mooning-slash-menacing letters failed to win back affections. “I want you to believe that I love you now as much as I ever did,” Williams wrote. “Keep your promise to me this time, old boy, as it is your last chance,” he wrote, later.

When the man with the redundant name went to die in the dead of night at a St. Paul prison, it seems that there’d been a slight miscalculation. When dropped through the trap, Williams’s “feet touched the ground by reason of the fact that his neck stretched four and one-half inches and the rope nearly eight inches.”

Consequently, three deputies on the scaffold hoisted the rope up to get him airborne, where he strangled to death over the span of a ghastly quarter-hour.

Slowly the minutes dragged.

The surgeon, watch in hand, held his fingers on Williams’ pulse as he scanned the dial of his watch.

Five minutes passed.

There was a slight rustle, low murmurs among the spectators and then silence.

Another five minutes dragged by.

Would this man never die?

Fainter and fainter grew the pulsations of the doomed heart as it labored to maintain its function.

The dead man’s suspended body moved with a gentle swaying.

The deputies wiped their perspiring brows with their handkerchiefs.

Members of the crowd shifted from one foot to another.

There were few murmurs, which died at once.

Eleven, twelve, thirteen minutes.

The heart was beating now with spasmodic movement, fainter and fainter.

Fourteen minutes—only a surgeon’s fingers could detect the flow of blood now.

Fourteen and a half minutes.

‘He is dead,’ said Surgeon Moore.

The end has come.

And the end had come.

Two things happened in consequence of this sensational press narrative.

First: the news entities who promulgated these descriptions were themselves prosecuted under a law sponsored by anti-death penalty Republican legislator John Day Smith to make executions as secretive as possible. The St. Paul Pioneer Press, St. Paul Dispatch and St. Paul Daily News each caught fines of 25 bones or clams or whatever you call them.

Second: those illicit descriptions out in the public eye triggered efforts (eventually successful in 1911) to abolish the death penalty full stop in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

There’s a great roundup of the Williams case here, and a pdf from the Minnesota Historical Society about the background and consequences of the John Day Smith law, themselves quite topical for this blog.

Smith’s law was adopted as a half-measure when death penalty abolition couldn’t pass in 1889, as a bit of moral hygiene against the unseemly spectacle of public execution. The measure pioneered the familiar 20th century routine of conducting executions after midnight behind prison walls. Newspapermen derisively called it the “midnight assassination” law — but it was taken up by many other states over the succeeding years as public executions went extinct.

As for Smith himself … there’s a rumor of a ghost story, and (given a tragic love story, a sensational crime, a capital punishment milestone, and a queer identity) the palpable fact of a play.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Minnesota,Murder,Sex,USA

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1952: George Muldowney, for loving and killing the original Bond girl

3 comments September 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1952, Irish steward George Muldowney was hanged at Pentonville Prison for the rather pathetic murder of a dashing Polish spy who had survived much greater villains.

Allowing that nobody ought to die on the floor of the Shelbourne Hotel with a sheath knife stuck in their chest, Christine Granville in particular really deserved a better exit.

Before the outbreak of World War II, she was Krystyna Skarbek, daughter of a Polish aristocrat sinking into poverty. After Germany overran Poland, she went off the marriage meatmarket and on Her Majesty’s Secret Service for a stunning career as a stunning spy that still has ’em sighing today.

Rechristened “Christine Granville” by Britain’s Special Operations Executive, she spent most of the war carrying out feats of cloak-and-dagger derring-do, with a Bond-like aplomb for extricating herself from tricky situations.

If only half the stories they tell about her are true …

  • Commuting between Hungary and Poland by skiing over the Tatra Mountains to gather intelligence and pull other agents out of harm’s way.
  • Getting herself and a fellow agent released from arrest by feigning tuberculosis by chewing her tongue until it bled.
  • Escaping capture at a checkpoint by pulling the pins on two grenades and daring the guards to shoot her.
  • Marching alone into a not-yet-liberated concentration camp to have POW’s reprieved from execution — by telling the Nazi commandante that he’d get the same treatment unless he spared them.
  • Snatching spymaster Francis Cammaerts from the Gestapo ahead of his execution.

And the love affairs! Or that’s what they say — including fellow agent Ian Fleming.

Granville earned the French Croix de Guerre, the George Medal for Special Services, the Order of the British Empire and other decorations, although merely surviving so much time in the field might have been her greatest achievement … but when the war ended, she was just another unwelcome Polish refugee, scrounging for service work in a recovering economy with no welcome waiting for her in her Soviet-dominated homeland.

From here on in, the trite and the tawdry eclipse the heroic.

A stewardess gig on a cruise ship attracted the attentions of her eventual murderer; his crush unreciprocated, and her companionship with another man jealously noticed, Muldowney stalked her and — on the very eve of Granville’s departure to reunite with a wartime confederate/lover — murdered her at her Kensington hotel.

To read the London Times‘ accounting the last moments of this woman so recently outfoxing the Nazis is to behold the face of banality triumphant.

Mr. Ian Smith, for the prosecution, said that, in a written statement at Kensington police station, Muldowney …

“describes how he waited outside the hotel and saw her go in. He went in after her and asked her for some letters he had exchanged with her. She said she had burned them. He did not believe her, and then says: ‘She told me she did not want anything to do with me and was off to the Continent and would see me in two years’ time.’

He then says: ‘Then I took the knife from the sheath which I had in my hip pocket and stabbed her in the chest, and then somebody came up.'” It was a deep stab wound up to the hilt of the knife, and penetrated the heart.

Muldowney didn’t fight the charge; he’d been planning to poison himself after the murder, and tried it when he was in custody. He declined legal aid and pleaded guilty at trial, seemingly eager to expiate his sin or join his would-be lover in death. It was less than 16 weeks after the crime that he stood on the gallows.

While Muldowney moulders in well-deserved obscurity, his victim reportedly inspired her former lover to create the character of Vesper Lynd — the original femme fatale secret agent in the original James Bond novel, Casino Royale. (And the smashing cocktail named for her in the same volume.)

She — Christine, not Vesper — is buried under a spadeful of symbolic Polish soil in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery in London.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Poland

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