1933: Dallas Egan, dancing

Add comment October 20th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1933, Dallas Egan hanged at California’s San Quentin Prison — and pretty much nobody was happier about it than Dallas Egan.

A cynic might attribute the puckish jig he reputedly danced en route to the gallows to the liberal allotment of whiskey, straight he had swallowed at the sufferance of Gov. “Sunny Jim” Rolph* — “all the whiskey he can safely stand up under.” It was just the governor’s way of saying thanks to the murderer for going so easy on the justice system.

Barely a year before, Egan and three accomplices robbed a Los Angeles jewelry store when, mid-robbery, an old fella with a hearing deficiency paused at the store window to check his pocketwatch against the wares n display — one of those little accidental moments that make up a life, or in this case, a death. Two deaths, actually. Egan shot the misfortunate William Kirkpatrick dead when the man didn’t respond to an order the robber shouted. “I gave the man full warning,” Egan explained.

But Egan didn’t mean to minimize his guilt; he was fully committed from the time of his capture to get himself the noose.

“I don’t know whether or not I’m insane,” he mused to the court when an attorney tried to secure a sanity hearing for him (per this Los Angeles Times profile). “We’re all a little crazy; even you, Judge. But I don’t want nine years’ punishment, or 20 years. I want to pay in full!” In later months he would write the governor and the Supreme Court insisting on his just deserts and washing his hands of any appeal or clemency effort on his behalf.

Egan’s last morning, Oct. 20, 1933, began with a good breakfast, some final sips of whiskey and a cigar “tilted at a ridiculous angle,” according to one witness. The previous night he’d played a record of “Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider” over and over in his cell, telling guards: “I’ll dance out to that tune.” (Some newspapers misquoted this statement with the more formal “I want to dance out to the gallows.”)

When the hour came, he really did dance an Irish jig as he entered the death chamber handcuffed between guards. He then walked up the 13 steps, energetically and alone. Offering no final words, he plunged through the trapdoor.

Rolph’s generosity toward Egan resulted in a two-day controversy. Some Bay Area preachers chided him for it, but Rolph had the last word: “We would be pretty small when we sent a man into eternity if we could not grant his last request.”

“>Los Angeles Times, January 23, 2011

* Rolph would die in office of a heart attack the following June. He was a one-term governor but has a bit of notoriety for publicly applauding a 1933 lynching in San Jose.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Theft,USA

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1858: Preston Turley, drunkard preacher

Add comment September 17th, 2016 Headsman

The city of Charleston, Virginia — soon to become Charleston, West Virginia — hosted the unctuously ceremonious public hanging of a killer preacher on this date in 1858.

Perhaps your correspondent is merely cynical having seen in these pages a thousand small-minded murderers lay their misdeeds to liquor and claim their redemptive shortcut to heaven. After all, hypocrisies great and small light each one of us through our days; Preston Turley no less than any man is surely entitled to his.

But we do incline with the fellow in the posse who arrested Turley after his missing wife Mary Susan was discovered at the bottom of a river, a rope fixing her neck to a stone and bludgeon bruises visible about her head, who had this exchange with Mr. Turley:

Turley: Whisky has brought me to this.

Mr. Webb: Don’t lay it all to whisky, as a man might have a deed in his breast, but not the courage to perform it, until he drank whisky.

Turley: That is about the fact.

Betweentimes Turley had posted a phony reward for his “missing” wife, slated her for unfaithfulness by way of palliating his crime, and briefly escaped his cell a few weeks before the execution. All of this is no more than any murderer might do to avoid the terrors of execution, but also does seem a bit difficult to square with the lamblike sacrificial Turley who presented on the scaffold September 17, preaching his last sermon to a throng five thousand strong or larger. Turley on this occasion was able to report that he had but a few days prior undergone a third and this time definitive conversion and that now, now, he had conquered death in Christ and become entitled to harangue the crowd and lead it in hymns. (And also that whisky was still the culprit.) He even got the murdered woman’s brothers to come out of the crowd and give him a tearful parting; “the whole scene was more that of an excited protracted [revival] meeting, than that of an execution.” If nothing else we have a compelling instance of the continuation of that ancient spirit of public execution reconciling the criminal to his community through his sacrifice.

We’ve been quoting from one of those books someone churned out to monetize all that pathos, suitably entitled “The trial, conviction, sentence, confession, and execution of Preston S. Turley: for the murder of his wife, Mary Susan Turley, in Kanawha County, Virginia.” We present it here for whomever might judge Turley’s character:

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Religious Figures,USA,Virginia,West Virginia

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1894: John Hardy, desperate little man

1 comment January 19th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1894, West Virginia hanged before a crowd of 3,000 for a mining camp murder three months before.

Hardy was reportedly already at odds with Thomas Drews, a fellow laborer in the booming Appalachian coal industry, over their mutual pursuit of the same woman when Hardy lost big to Drews in a craps game on October 13, 1893.

While it’s true that twenty-five cents doesn’t really seem all that “big”, this sum could represent a decent slice of a day’s pay in the coal mining game, and that in an industry where downward wage pressure had generated a ferocious national strike only months before. Hardy was profoundly nonplussed to have to fork over the sweat of his brow to a love rival and, with the added incitement of whiskey, shot Drews dead. (Ten more spectators at his hanging wound up in stir themselves for drunk and disorderlies.)

Hardy’s execution has pride of place in Americana as the inspiration for the tune “John Hardy Was A Desperate Little Man”. (Or simply, “John Hardy”; as a folk figure, he has occasionally been confused or conflated with John Henry)

One of the most popular folk ballads in American history, the song has foggy origins but amazing reach: it has been performed, covered, and reinterpreted by a scores of artists including the Carter Family, Lead Belly, Duke Ellington, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan with the Grateful Dead.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA,West Virginia

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1879: Pocket, on the Hallettsville hanging tree

Add comment September 12th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1879, a half-blooded Native American named Pocket died in Hallettsville on an oak tree.

The son of a French Canadian father and a Blackfoot Sioux mother, Pocket had been befriended by a cattleman named Lou Allen. They met by chance in the early 1870s; Pocket was a half-caste child, maybe not even into adolescence, with broken English, doing odd jobs to scrape by.

Of Pocket we have only glimpses of the moments where he comes into the view of white men. His rancher-friend took him until “becoming tired of civilized life, and pining for the freedom of his native wilds,” Pocket vanished on a horse that Mr. Allen willingly gave him. (The quote comes from the Galveston Weekly News of September 18, 1879; it’s also the source for the other quotes in this post.)

That was in 1874. For the next several years Pocket’s activities are mostly unknown, save for the few times he popped back into Mr. Allen’s life — once to bum a suit of clothes; another time when they met by accident in Wichita, Pocket destitute after gambling everything away; and finally when Pocket reappeared in Lavaca County only to be refused aid by his benefactor in a possible gesture of tough love. Pocket found work on a nearby farm instead.

On Valentine’s Day 1878, Pocket was seen in the county seat of Hallettsville getting roaring drunk on whiskey. He left town for the countryside carrying another bottle and proceeded to stop at several farms to accost their residents.

At the Smith house, he barged in, stole a pistol, and forced his way into the family dinner. He stumbled into the home of a former slave named Frank Edwards, ripped up bed clothes, and started swinging an axe around until Edwards punched out the unwanted visitor.

Fuming, Pocket proceeded to yet another farm, the Petersons, where he contrived to get the family hunting rifle by representing the presence of a drove of turkeys nearby. A young Brit named Leonard Hyde worked for the Petersons, and he went along with Pocket “to see the fun.” As ominously as this reads, Hyde had no reason to suspect trouble; the Galveston Weekly News would note that Hyde and Pocket “were both under twenty-one years of age, friendly with one another up to the last moment, and both strangers in the land which has given to each of them a grave.” Two kids out on a turkey-shooting lark.

Hyde trotted along on foot after Pockett, and soon another of Hyde’s friends joined the supposed hunting foray. Suddenly, their intoxicated leader stopped and cursed Hyde for following him — then shot him dead through the forehead with his pistol. The killer’s mind was obviously disordered and impulsive, but it’s possible that Hyde died in place of Frank Edwards, or if not Edwards then whomever Pocket might have crossed paths with next that night.

Now with blood on his hands, Pocket did not pause to revenge any other slights but galloped off into the wilderness. He was eventually captured in Bosque County.


(Source, which also preserves a sad letter from Hyde’s father written in March 1878 upon learning of his son’s murder.)

Perhaps three thousand souls turned out to see a repentant Pocket die in Hallettsville on September 12, 1879 — “every road entering this town became alive with people of all ages, sexes and colors, without regard to previous condition, coming to witness the first legal execution in this county.” Pocket had spent his last weeks in religious devotion and struck those who saw him as a profoundly changed man.

The great hanging-tree can still be seen today, shading a picnic-table in City Park, next to the Hallettsville Golf Association clubhouse.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Texas,USA

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1894: Enoch Davis, like a cur

3 comments September 14th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1894, Enoch Davis — condemned for the fatally pistol-whipping his wife, who was planning to leave him (you’ll see why in a moment) — was shot to death at Lehi Junction, Utah.

We have some affection in these pages for men or women who do not “play the man” (or woman) at the end but die in piteously naked humanity.

Given that we bear no brief for the man’s eternal soul, it seems in these parts as if bursting with rage is no less legitimate a way than any other to shuffle off this mortal coil: surely, it is better spectacle than many. “The most despicable mangy canine whelp that ever met an ignominious fate,” reported Salt Lake’s Daily Tribune, “could not have whined itself out of existence in a more deplorable, decency-sickening state than was Enoch Davis’ last hour.”

Davis got started well before the last hour; according to this review of Utah’s notable executions, he kicked off execution day by asking his jailers if he could enjoy one last … prostitute.

Maybe that would have chilled him out a little.

Instead, the Salt Lake Herald reporter recounted (under a scandalized headline) that “for vileness, filth, obscenity, indecency, billingsgate and profanity, no man, standing on the threshold of eternity’s ante-room, ever equaled Davis, barring Ruloff who was hung in Binghampton [sic], New York, in 1872 [sic].”

By turns cursing, resisting, demanding (he had better luck with his demand for whisky), and cursing some more — the Herald report is full of blushing bowdlerizations of Davis’s dirty stories and blasphemous digressions. Solicited of his last remarks, “[t]he subsequent dialogue was of such a disconnected character that reproduction is impossible. First, because it was too filthy; second, the same. And so on ad infinitum.”

Now those are last words we can all enjoy.

Beyond the newsmen, and about 500 residents of Provo, Lehi, and environs who assembled for the show, the audience included the six anonymous members of the firing squad. In order to secret their identity, they had been carried to the site in the dead of night and situated in a tent: they would not emerge until the following nightfall.

Holes cut in the canvas provided their firing positions on Davis, staked out in a bar seat that was (for obvious reasons, but also because Davis was by that point too drunk to sit straight) as securely nailed down as the officiants could manage.

Davis objected to everything else, and of course he objected to this too. “Let me see ’em! Let me see them men who are going to kill me!” the doomed man carped, not wanting to “die like an Indian.” Odd phrase, but he was a little stressed out.

The sharpshooters demurred.

The demurrers shot sharp.

That part, at least, went off without a hitch. Like an Indian, like a cur, or merely like a weak and wicked villain, Davis succumbed instantly to the volley.

His own cowardly tears fell through the foulest of breaths during his last hour, his complete lack of nerve … might have won him a little human sympathy if it were not for his vile and lying tongue.

-Salt Lake Tribune, quoted in Frontier Justice in the Wild West: Bungled, Bizarre, and Fascinating Executions


This illustration (and the sketch of Davis above) both from the September 15, 1894 Salt Lake Herald.

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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

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1811: John Andrews, whisky man

1 comment September 6th, 2011 Headsman

This date is the bicentennial of the first public execution in Seneca County, New York. (There would only be one other.)

Future New York Gov. Joseph C. Yates — for whom the adjacent Yates County is named — was already a state Supreme Court justice when he repaired to the newly-built county courthouse in tiny Ovid to judge the case of the cottonmouthed contract clodhopper.

Yates duly condemned John Andrews to hang on account of murdering (pdf) a local distillery worker for the rather disproportionate offense of not ladling Andrews a drink of whisky after Andrews had completed some odd job or other for the place.

Sometimes a man takes a drink. Sometimes a drink takes a man.

Surrounded by the usual contingent of Militia and the surging crowd that had assembled from the town and surrounding contryside through the earlier circulation of handbills that had declared the unusual event as a sort of holiday, the noose was adjusted and Andrews quickly jerked into eternity. Some of the spectators had taken to the roof-tops, others were perched in nearby trees, and parents held their children high on their shoulders for a better view. No other event, save the General Trainings of Militia, called together so many people as did a hanging in those early times. Years afterwards, the stumps of the gallows were pointed out, as a spectator recalled the details of that momentous day. Some three years later, Reuben Tingley, who lived in close proximity to the Court-House in this village, killed his wife by a blow on the head with an axe, and then cut his own throat. The murder and suicide on October 28, 1814, saved the county the expense of an execution, but deprived the curious of an opportunity to witness a second public hanging, a fact that might have well been foremost in the mind of the murderer after having dispatched his wife. (Source)

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,New York,Public Executions,USA

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