1900: Benjamin Snell, electricity in his head

Add comment June 29th, 2015 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

As the rope was placed around his throat:

“Oh, I’ll smother with that on. I’ve got electricity in my head now.*”

– Benjamin Snell, convicted of murder, hanging,** Washington, DC.
Executed June 29, 1900

“A man of education and good family,” Snell was convicted of murder after breaking in to the house of child Lizzie Weisenberger and cutting her throat with a razor. Other prisoners shunned Snell, and when Frank Funk heard that he was to be executed on the same day and scaffold as Snell, he petitioned the courts to change the day. President McKinley reprieved Funk for several days, and Snell and Funk maintained “bitter hatred” until Snell’s death.


* Snell, who pursued an insanity defense that was not persuasive to the jury but was convincing enough to induce the entire Congressional delegation of his home state of Georgia to petition President McKinley for a commutation, regularly complained of electricity buzzing in his brain. “I told a physician about it and he laughed at me,” Snell complained (Washington Evening Star, June 28, 1900) of the incredulity this complaint elicited. -ed.

** A giant at two meters tall and a reported 17 stone on the day of his execution, Stone was nearly decapitated by the noose — presumably the consequence of the characteristic American practice of making an impressionistic guess at the right length of the drop, rather than scientifically calculating it.


San Jose (Calif.) Evening News, June 30, 1900.

The victim’s father had the goriest seat in the house for this, standing “directly at the foot of the scaffold, within a few feet of where the body swung after the fall” (Evening Star, June 29, 1900) at the private hanging. -ed.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Other Voices,U.S. Federal,USA,Washington DC

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1900: The private, decent, and humane execution of a human being named George Smiley

Add comment January 8th, 2015 Headsman

George Smiley’s execution in the Arizona Territory on this date in 1900 was a month late owing to a public relations debacle.

The first and only man ever hanged in Navajo County, Smiley had killed a railroad section foreman.

As his scheduled December 8 execution approached, sheriff Frank Wattron garlanded the routine invitation he was required to send to the official witnesses with a bit more exuberance than was usual for the genre.

Holbrook, Arizona ... 1899.

Mr. .....

You are hereby cordially invited to attend the hanging of one

GEORGE SMILEY, MURDERER.

His soul will be swung into eternity on Dec. 8, 1899, at 2 o'clock, p.m. sharp.

Latest improved methods in the art of scientific strangulation will be employed and everything possible will be done to make the proceedings cheerful and the execution a success.

F.J. WATTRON,
Sheriff of Navajo County

The jaunty, gilt-edged communique found its way into the hands of newsmen who soon reported it coast to coast.

U.S. President William McKinley — Wattron’s ultimate boss, since Arizona was a pre-statehood federal territory at this point — was not amused by the officer’s jollity, and ordered a 30-day reprieve for Smiley and a do-over with a little solemnity this time for Wattron.

The sheriff’s compliance was not altogether in the spirit of the directive. On the eve of the hanging, when it was much too late for news cycles to create any upstairs blowback, he dispatched a black-framed invitation dripping in sarcastic gravity.

Revised Statutes of Arizona, Penal Code, Title X, Section 1849, Page 807, makes it obligatory on sheriff to issue invitations to executions, form (unfortunately) not prescribed.

Holbrook, Arizona

Jan. 7, 1900.

With feelings of profound sorrow and regret, I hereby invite you to attend and witness the private, decent and humane execution of a human being; name, George Smiley, crime, murder.

The said George Smiley will be executed on Jan. 8, 1900, at 2 o’clock p.m.

You are expected to deport yourself in a respectful manner, and any “flippant” or “unseemly” language or conduct on your part will not be allowed. Conduct, on anyone’s part, bordering on ribaldry and tending to mar the solemnity of the occasion will not be tolerated.

F.J. Wattron,
Sheriff of Navajo County

I would suggest that a committee, consisting of Governor Murphy, Editors Dunbar, Randolph and Hull, wait on our next legislature and have a form of invitation to executions embodied in our laws.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arizona,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,U.S. Federal,USA

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1901: “Black Jack” Tom Ketchum, who was left in three pieces

21 comments April 26th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1901, a two-bit outlaw from a vanishing frontier made his reservations for hell.

Tom Ketchum — who had become known as “Black Jack” when misidentified with another hombre he resembled — was the last man to hang in America for attempting to rob a train. Given the way the authorities in Clayton, N.M., conducted the job, that’s probably for the best.

This Texas-born outlaw enjoyed a colorful career in the 1890s Southwest plundering trains, killing folk, and other distinctively American pastimes. His name attaches to the [in]famous Hole in the Wall Gang.

He was finally caught attempting a dangerous one-man train robbery, when a conductor (taking part in his third stickup, and tired of being on the wrong end of the gunbarrel) got the drop on Ketchum and winged him with a shotgun. Too weakened by his injury to escape, Ketchum surrendered himself to the law, and his wounded arm to the surgeons.

The un-amputated remainder belonged to Clayton, N.M. — New Mexico Territory, that is, which was not yet a state at this time, but was keen on making an example to stanch the tide of train robberies.

(Formally, the charge that hung Ketchum was “felonious assault upon a railway train”; he was the only person executed for this offense before the Supreme Court decided that a hanging crime needed more victims than just an iron horse. This jurisprudential advance might not have done Black Jack very much good anyway, since neighboring Arizona had also put in an extradition request for murder.)

So far, so good.

Then, they actually dropped him.

When the body dropped through the trap the half-inch rope severed the head as cleanly as if a knife had cut it. The body pitched forward with blood spurting from the headless trunk. The head remained in the black sack and flew down into the pit.

SOME MEN GROANED.

Some men groaned and others turned away, unable to endure the sight. For a few seconds the body was allowed to lie there half-doubled up on its right side, with the blood issuing in an intermittent stream from the severed neck as the heart kept on with its mechanical beating. Then with cries of consternation the officers rushed down from the scaffold and lifted the body from the ground. It was only then apparent exactly what happened.

The drop of the body was seven feet and the noose was made so it slipped easily. Ketchum was a heavy man, and the weight of the body, with the easy-running noose, caused the rope to cut the head cleanly off. Dr. Slack pronounced life extinct a little over five minutes from the time the body dropped through the trap. It is stated too much of a drop was given for so heavy a man.

Just so we’re clear: a seven-foot drop is much, much too far for a man of Ketchum’s 190-plus pounds. Maybe they were distracted by rumors of an escape attempt.

The newspaper account above cites much more forgettable scaffold-talk from Ketchum, but we can’t help but find charm (and obviously, black humor) in his alleged last words,

I’ll be in hell before you start breakfast, boys! Let her rip!

Fictional? If so, they’re more like what Ketchum’s last words ought to be. Although let St. Peter‘s ledger reflect that Ketchum was a decent enough chap to post a letter to President McKinley on the morning of his own execution copping to several robberies for which other people were imprisoned.

Initially buried — naturally — at Clayton’s Boot Hill, this infernal denizen’s grave can now be found (and more than a century on, tourists and admirers do find it) at Clayton Memorial Cemetery.

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1901: Leon Czolgosz, William McKinley’s assassin

4 comments October 29th, 2009 Headsman

Back ’round the fin de siècle, everybody who was anybody* was being whacked by anarchists.

On this date in 1901, unemployed (and seemingly unbalanced) steelworker Leon Czolgosz rode the lightning at New York’s Auburn Prison for inducting the late U.S. President William McKinley into the club.

It hadn’t even been eight weeks since Czolgosz met McKinley gladhanding a receiving line at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, and fatally (though it took the victim a week to succumb) shot the second-term Republican president.

Matters progressed from there as one might expect.

In a one-day trial that lasted 8 hours from jury selection to sentence, Czolgosz was condemned to die in New York’s electric chair. He went to his death unapologetic, but also alone; most anarchists disavowed him for hurting the cause.**

Here’s the New York Times account of the assassin’s final moments.

As he was being seated [in the electric chair] he looked about at the assembled witnesses with quite a steady stare and said:

“I killed the President because he was an enemy of the good people — of the working people.”

His voice trembled slightly at first, but gained strength with each word, and he spoke perfect English.

“I am not sorry for my crime,” he said loudly, just as the guard pushed his head back on the rubber headrest and drew the strap across his forehead and chin. As the pressure on the straps tightened and bound the jaw slightly he mumbled: “I’m awfully sorry I could not see my father.”

It was just exactly 7:11 o’clock when he crossed the threshold [into the execution chamber], but a minute had elapsed and he just had finished the last statement when the strapping was completed, and the guards stepped back from the man. Warden Mead raised his hand, and at 7:12:30 Electrician Davis turned the switch that threw 1,700 volts of electricity into the living body.

The rush of the immense current threw the body so hard against the straps that they creaked perceptibly. The hands clinched suddenly, and the whole attitude was one of extreme tension. For forty-five seconds the full current was kept on, and then slowly the electrician threw the switch back, reducing the current volt by volt until it was cut off entirely.

They made good and sure by dissolving the body in sulfuric acid.

Thomas Edison made a video recreation of the scene — not to be confused with actual film of the execution, though some sites present it as such — shortly after. Whether its creation was influenced by Edison’s now-doomed project of discrediting Alternating Current, a business rivalry that had helped introduce the electric chair in the first place, I have been unable to determine; the Edison labs produced a number of silent films exploiting “a whole string of news events surrounding the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo … both through a monumental display of lights (including test bulbs on the reproduction of the electric chair) and by a booming output of scenics, actualities, and even a historical topical.”

Glum.

More lighthearted (and more audible) is “The Ballad of Leon Czolgosz,” from Stephen Sondheim’s offbeat Broadway hit Assassins, here presented with liberal use of the Edison labs’ Pan-Am Expo footage.

… it’s not the first pop culture ephemera generated by McKinley’s martyrdom; folk ballad variations under different titles (“The White House Blues,” “McKinley,” “McKinley’s Rag,” or this version, “Zolgotz”) were in circulation in the early 20th century. Other variations and some background can be had here.

[audio:Zolgotz.mp3]

This third assassination of an American chief executive in the span of 36 years (with similar fates for James Garfield’s killer and the Lincoln conspirators) led the Secret Service, originally a Treasury Department anti-counterfeiting unit, to assume responsibility for bodily safeguarding the President in 1902.

* We’ve met a few of anarchism’s greatest hits in these pages … as well as their greatest martyrs.

** Anarchist titan Emma Goldman was blamed for inciting the murder and initially arrested; she was also one of the few anarchists to defend Czolgosz: “He had committed the act for no personal reasons or gain. He did it for what is his ideal: the good of the people. That is why my sympathies are with him.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Murder,New York,Notable for their Victims,Popular Culture,Revolutionaries,Terrorists,USA

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