1879: Three botches in three states

America’s weird love-affair with Frankenstein execution technology has been an occasional theme on this blog, but the fact is that the old-school execution methods these ghastly machines replaced were unpleasantly hit-and-miss.

On this date in 1879, three different U.S. states produced botched executions, each blurbed this New York Times article. (pdf)

One is attracted most readily to the firing-squad execution of murderer Wallace Wilkerson in Utah.

Wilkerson appealed the constitutionality of this method of execution, and in 1879’s Wilkerson v. Utah, the U.S. Supreme Court held that “the punishment of shooting as a mode of executing the death penalty for the crime of murder in the first degree is not” cruel and unusual punishment.

This legal precedent has actually been cited* by the present-day Supreme Court in rejecting legal challenges to lethal injection. Which is ironic, because a couple of months after the high court issued Wilkerson v. Utah, Wilkerson suffered a very cruel execution indeed.

The doomed man talked the officials conducting his execution into allowing him to die without being strapped down. With the resultant range of motion, Wilkerson at the last breath before the fusillade hit him drew his shoulders up as he braced for the impact — and pulled the white target pinned to his shirt above his heart.

The volley didn’t kill him — it just knocked him out of his chair to the ground, screaming “Oh, my God! My God! They have missed!”

He bled to death in 27 minutes, prompting the tongue-in-cheek observation by the Ogden Junction that “the French guillotine never fails.”

Meanwhile, on the very same day in Missouri …

ST. LOUIS, Mo., May 16.–A special dispatch from Booneville, Mo., says: “John I. West, who murdered a tramp last October, was to-day hanged at the Old Fair Ground near this city. When the trap was sprung, at 11:41 A.M., the rope broke, and the culprit fell to the ground on his back, but was too weak to rise. His groans and the gurgling sounds of strangulation were terrible to hear. He was picked up and speedily raised to the trap again, and, while being held by four or five men, was dropped a second time. This time he swung, and in 11 minutes was pronounced dead.

After reaching the platform of the gallows, West spoke nearly half an hour to the crowd present, reiterating his confession of the murder of Shinn, reviewing his past life, and appealing to young men and women to take his fate as a warning. There were about 8,000 people present, among whom was the father of West, who had come from Chapin, Ill.

(There’s a great deal more about West’s crime in the Times article, but it’s pretty dull reading for all the column-inches. He was a tramp who committed a semi-random murder, seemingly activating all the crime-freakout circuits so familiar to cable news programmers.)

Hillsboro, North Carolina, held a first-ever triple hanging — of the “Chapel Hill burglars”. As you might guess, these gentlemen burgled, and said burgling occurred in Chapel Hill. It was for housebreaking, not murder, that they were condemned, with the help of a confederate who turned state’s-evidence against them as soon as the lot was arrested.

Each of the culprits proclaimed his innocence to the last moment. [Lewis] Carlton spoke for an hour, and said his salvation was sure. The parting between [Henry] Andrews and his sister on the scaffold was most affecting, and moved the crowd of witnesses to tears. All the doomed men bore themselves firmly, and showed no signs of wavering. The hanging took place at 2:30 P.M., and was very badly conducted. The ropes around the necks of [Henry Alphonso] Davis and Carlton were too long, and their feet rested on the ground. They were raised up and the ropes retied, causing death by strangulation.

(According to this “history of the University of North Carolina” page, one of the burglars’ victims was writer Cornelia Phillips Spencer. Famous as the woman who rang the bell re-opening UNC in 1875, her role in closing the university in the first place in 1870 and her retrograde racial politics have recently been in Tar Heel news. The linked article suggests that her brush with the Chapel Hill burglars might have given Spencer an appreciation for the Ku Klux Klan’s version of order. After all, a white supremacist vigilante is just a liberal who’s been burgled.)

The St. Louis Globe-Democrat of May 17, 1879 adds of our men’s exit (in an addendum to a report primarily about the aforementioned West) that

[t]he execution was romantic in the extreme. Just as the doomed men ascended the platform a murky cloud, which had been drifting around, hung over the crowd and the instrument of death. Alfonso Davis began to speak, and as he opened his mouth the thunder began to peal, and the rain came down in torrents. Not a man, woman or child in the vast crowd moved or seemed to be aware that the rain was falling, so wrapped up in the death scene were they. At times the cloud threw such a dense shadow over the scene that it seemed as though night had enveloped the place. Then the lightning, vivid and intense, lit up the field of blood and cast forward, in bold and statuesque relief, the figures of the doomed and their executor as he stood like an artilleryman, lanyard in hand, ready to send the signal of death forward … the souls of three burglars went out and beyond, forked lightning illuminating their way and the wildest of thunder pealing their requiem.

The Bayou State redeemed this black day for the executioner’s craft by the uneventful hanging one Robert Cheney (black, of course) “for ravishing Amelia Voight in June, 1878.”

All told, four states killed six men on May 16, 1879, but only two of them died “cleanly.”

* The author of the New York Times opinion piece cited here, Gilbert King, has guest-blogged on this site:

On this day..

3 thoughts on “1879: Three botches in three states

  1. While Wallace Wilkerson’s case is widely taken to involve an Eighth Amendment challenge to the method of shooting as itself “cruel and unusual,” that in fact was not how his case was presented and understood in the Supreme Court of the Territory of Utah, where it was known as _People v. Wilkinson_, 2 Utah 158 (1878). As an aside, we may note that Wilkerson, like Frank Palka (aka Palko, executed by Connecticut in 1938) and John Spenkelink (aka Spinkellink, executed by Floriday in 1979) has an often misspelled, or at least variably spelled, name.

    The Utah Supreme Court decision of 1878 makes it clear that Wilkerson’s claim was that the Utah Legislature had erred in 1876 when it updated the death penalty law, but forgot to specify any method of execution for those sentenced to death for first degree murder. The 1852 statute had provided no less than three methods: hanging, shooting, or beheading, with an “option” for the prisoner to choose. Wilkerson’s trial judge at sentencing gave him the customary choice, just as if the 1852 law were still in effect, and like most of Utah’s condemned defendants, chose shooting, which the judge then imposed. (No one chose beheading, which for some Mormons of the time would have been the ideal form of “blood atonement” under a doctrine then widely held but later rejected by the Church of Latter Day Saints, which is now neutral on the death penalty in general as well as methods of execution. In 1888, the beheading option was abolished.)

    On his appeal, Wilkerson urged that only the Legislature could designate the method of execution, and that the judge could not “legislate” from the bench by trying to repair this omission. The Utah Supreme Court was not impressed, and held that since the Legislature meant the death penalty for first degree murder to be effective, the trial judge obviously must specify the method — or, here, follow custom and let the prisoner decide between the three methods allowed under the 1852 law.

    The Utah Court also noted that the method of execution, of course, would have to be permissible under the Eighth Amendment, that applied to the Territory of Utah (although not, back then, directly to the States). And, 2 Utah at 164, it briefly considered the possible question of whether “death by shooting” might be considered “a cruel and unusual punishment.”

    “We do not think that the appellant so considers it, nor do we think he could.” The Court pointed out that not only was shooting used for military executions, but it was the choice of most condemned Utah prisoners themselves.

    When read in light of this decision by the Utah Supreme Court, the SCOTUS opinion becomes clearer. For example, Justice Clifford may have focused on military law and executions not only to support the Utah Court’s point that firing squads are the norm, but to show that for a tribunal to impose sentence on a capital provision which does not itself designate the method of execution, the result of the Utah Legislature’s omission, is not so unknown.

    A military tribunal, as SCOTUS explains, chooses hanging or shooting based on custom, sometimes with an element of discretion.

    Of course, what the Utah Supreme Court and SCOTUS wrote about the Eighth Amendment in the process is of continuing interest, and _Wilkerson_ is rightly known as the first method of execution case to come before SCOTUS. However, the main issue wasn’t whether shooting was “cruel and unusual,” but whether a judge could order it when the Legislature had failed to authorize any method of execution.

    Incidentally, Wilkerson’s case could tie in with a more successful challenge to a legislative oversight, which might be entitled “1860: Not Mary Hartung.” The series of cases starting with _Hartung v. People_ (New York Court of Appeals, 1860) were prominently cited by Wilkerson’s counsel in both the Utah Supreme Court and SCOTUS, and show the kind of technical challenge that was involved. That’s another story, of course.

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