1886: William Wilson

Add comment November 12th, 2016 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1886, 45-year-old William S. Wilson was hanged for murder in Jonesboro, Illinois. He had killed his wife, Margaret.

Wilson was good at producing offspring — he was the father of at least seven children and possibly as many as nine — but not so good at providing for them. At Christmas in 1885, he left his family and went to Kentucky, leaving his destitute wife and kids only $5 in cash (the equivalent of about $130 in modern terms) and very little fuel. When supplies ran out in early January, several neighbors took pity on Margaret Wilson and her brood and banded together to cut enough firewood to get them through the winter.

When William returned home on January 7, however, he was furious when he learned Margaret had shamed him by accepting charity.

Daniel Allen Hearn, in his book Legal Executions in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky and Missouri: A Comprehensive Registry, 1866-1965, records,

Wilson berated his wife for allowing the neighbors to act. He chased the heavily pregnant woman out of their cabin and shot her down in the mud and slush. The sight of her near-term unborn baby vainly kicking against the interior wall of her abdomen appalled witnesses, who could do nothing to save it. Details such as these illustrate the brutality that often characterizes these all-too-common wife-killing cases.

William had shot Margaret twice: once in the chest inside the house, and once again outdoors as she was running away. As she lay dying on the frozen ground he walked away. He didn’t get far before he was arrested.

A contemporary newspaper article speculated that William might be crazy, noting that he had been “affected for a long time with some incurable disease” and “is not regarded by some as sane.” But it wasn’t enough. William paid the ultimate price for his crime eleven months after the murder.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Illinois,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions,USA

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1875: William Wilson, taking the priest with him

Add comment December 10th, 2013 Headsman

From The Fabulous Frontier, 1846-1912. (The entire text below is a single large paragraph in that book, so line breaks have been added for readability.)

On August 2, 1875, Robert Casey was shot and killed by William Wilson in Lincoln with a bullet fired from a Winchester rifle. Wilson was tried, convicted by a jury and sentenced to be hanged.

On December 10, 1875, the appointed day, a large crowd gathered in the Lincoln* jail yard to witness the hanging. Ash Upson** was present as a representative of the press, but left shortly after the trap was sprung, probably to get a drink.

After being suspended by a rope for nine and one-half minutes by the Sheriff’s watch, Wilson’s body was taken down from the scaffold and placed in the coffin.

Spectators nudged the Sheriff and told him that Wilson was not yet dead.

Red-faced and embarrassed the Sheriff and several helpers lifted William Wilson from his wooden coffin, escorted him once more to the scaffold. The rope was again tied around the condemned man’s neck and he was suspended for an additional twenty minutes, at the end of which time there was not much doubt that the demands of the law had been satisfied.

Father Antonio Lamy, twenty-eight years old, a native of France, a nephew of Archbishop John B. Lamy of Santa Fe, had been a reluctant witness to the hanging … Padre Lamy had been in Lincoln on a missionary tour. He called at the jail to offer spiritual consolation to William Wilson, soon to be hanged. Wilson prepared himself for death under Father Lamy’s direction and accepted his offer of company to the scaffold.

The hanging and rehanging of Wilson proved too much for the frail young man of God.

Rather desperately ill, suffering from chills and high temperature, the Padre insisted on returning on horseback to Manzano a few days after William Wilson had been hanged. Arriving in Manzano, Father Lamy’s condition rapidly became worse. He died there on February 6, 1876.

The remains of the priest were buried under the floor of the parish church at Manzano. The story of Padre Lamy’s death has for many years been kept alive in the Manzano community. His grave in the church has long been a silent sermon in opposition to the brutality of capital punishment.

* Lincoln was a little hit and miss with its necktie parties: it’s also the town where Billy the Kid escaped a hanging.

** Ghostwriter of Pat Garrett‘s memoir, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid.

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1786: Elizabeth Wilson, her reprieve too late

3 comments January 3rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1786, Elizabeth Wilson was hanged in Chester, Pennsylvania for the murder of her infant twins.

“One of the melodramas of the early American republic,” our Elizabeth (sometimes called “Harriot Wilson” in the accounts) was a farmer’s daughter of Chester County who got knocked up by a passing sailor. When this gentleman declined to make an honest woman of her after she had borne the bastards, the kids disappeared — later to be discovered dead in the woods by a hunter.

The fallen woman denied having killed them directly, but “acknowledged having placed the children by the road-side, in order that any person passing that way, and who had humanity enough, might take them up.”

She would eventually, after condemnation, accuse her lover of having slain the children.

Elizabeth’s brother William Wilson vigorously undertook on this basis to secure her a pardon at the hands of the Commonwealth’s executive authority, the Supreme Executive Council — then under the leadership of no less august a character than Benjamin Franklin.

And he found a sympathetic audience. Council Vice-President Charles Biddle* “firmly believed her innocent, for to me it appeared highly improbable that a mother, after suckling her children for six weeks, could murder them … there was a large majority would have been for pardoning her.”

Instead of an outright commutation, it granted a stay of execution for William Wilson to investigate further, which he did to no successful effect.

“But here we must drop a tear!” exclaims the Faithful Narrative of Elizabeth Wilson, a popular pamphlet (pdf) sensationalizing the case. “What heart so hard, as not to melt at human woe!”

For William Wilson’s suit on behalf of his sister had succeeded in earning, on the eve of the Jan. 3 hanging, a second respite on Biddle’s certain anticipation that clemency would be forthcoming. Ill himself, William took the stay of execution from Biddle’s own hands and raced through a fearful storm on the 15-mile ride from Philadelphia to Chester … but

did not arrive until twenty-three minutes after the solemn scene was closed. When he came with the respite in his hand, and saw his sister irrecoverably gone, beheld her motionless, and sunk in death, who can paint the mournful scene?

Let imagination if she can!

Imagination can do quite a lot with this sort of material, and so the tale of Elizabeth Wilson — the intrinsic pathos of the condemned, her widely-suspected innocence, her evangelical-friendly repentance, the cliffhanger conclusion — became widely re-circulated, and undoubtedly embroidered.

Quaker colonial diarist Elizabeth Drinker (who had firsthand experience of official injustice, when suspicious-of-Quakers revolutionaries had banished her husband from Philadelphia) was still seeing these publications over a decade after Wilson’s death.

May 16 [1797]. Unsettled. Wind variable. Read a narrative of Elizabeth Wilson, who was executed at Chester, Jany ’86, charged with the murder of her twin infants. A reprieve arrived 20 minutes after her execution, by her brother from Philadelphia. She persisted to the last in her account of the murder being committed by the father of the children, which was generally believed to be the truth. I recollect having heard the sad tale at the time of the transaction.

The Wilson story actually persisted (and persists) for centuries yet. Her shaken brother, William, withdrew himself from society and lived out his last years in a cave: he entered folklore as the Pennsylvania Hermit, affixed with his tragic sister to all manner of spook stories, like a spectral horseman galloping to Chester, or a ghostly woman rummaging the leaves where the bodies were found. You’ll hear all about the Pennsylvania Hermit when touring his former stomping grounds, now open to the public (for a fee, my friend) as Indian Echo Caverns.

* Biddle was a future U.S. Senator, but he’s probably best known through his son. Born just five days after Elizabeth Wilson’s execution, Nicholas Biddle was a bitterly controversial character as one of antebellum America’s original banksters.

Charles Biddle’s notes on the case veer into the era’s philosophical concern with the timeless problem of making a just response to infanticide.

“Perhaps,” he muses “the punishment of death is too great for an unmarried woman who destroys her child. They are generally led to it from a fear of being exposed … [and] while death is the punishment, a jury will seldom find a verdict against them.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Pardons and Clemencies,Pennsylvania,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Reprieved Too Late,The Supernatural,USA,Women,Wrongful Executions

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