1946: A triple execution in Washington, DC

“Death, administered in the law’s deliberate way, exacted a three-fold toll in the District [of Columbia]’s electric chair” on this date in 1946, announced the next day’s Washington Post.*

It was as many people as the nation’s capital had put to death in the previous four years combined. The clientele: three unconnected men, condemned for unconnected murders.

“Joseph Dunbar Medley, suave slayer of a Washington divorcee,” was the most (in)famous of the three. “The debonair man who blazed a trail of crime from the Middle West” had that April made a daring escape from District Jail — which was rather renowned for its escapability, but still, this was a guy on death row, and who was only a few weeks from his then-scheduled electrocution.

Medley and another condemned man, Earl McFarland, charmed their way into their guards’ confidence. During a card game played in one of the guards’ rooms, they imprisoned their jailers, nicked their clothes, and cut their way into a ventilation shaft and out to the roof.

Medley himself was captured hours later hiding in a sewer pipe on the Anacostia River, pithily remarking to reporters, “You can’t blame a guy for trying, and I’m going to try again.” (Chicago Tribune, April 4, 1946) If he did try again, he didn’t make it.

But the bloodhounds couldn’t pick up McFarland, whose manhunt made nationwide headlines for more than a week until he was finally tracked down in Knoxville, Tenn. (He was executed solo in July.)

While [Medley] waited [for three hours of last-second appeals to clear], the chair claimed two other slayers, both Negroes.

William Copeland, 38-year-old slayer of his sister-in-law, Mrs. Dora Johnson, walked into the chamber, jauntily smoking a cigar which he clenched in his teeth while he smiled. He helped guards adjust the straps and the leather face mask smothered his last smile …

Second to die was Julius Fisher, 32, convicted of beating to death Miss Catherine Reardon, librarian at the Washington Cathedral … bludgeoned to death with a piece of firewood and her body hidden in a sub-basement crypt. He strangled and struck her after she had complained about the way he had cleaned under her desk.

* Charles J. Yarbrough, “Death Hour Delayed by Futile Court Maneuver,” The Washington Post, Dec 21, 1946.

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