Posts filed under 'Illinois'

1894: Patrick Prendergast, mayor-murderer

Add comment July 13th, 2020 Headsman

Patrick Eugene Joseph Prendergast, a madman who assassinated the mayor of Chicago, was hanged on this date in 1894.

Prendergast seems to have been a mentally unbalanced character from his early childhood; one might speculatively attribute it to a youthful head injury, or the very early death of his father, or the strains of an impecunious life that pushed his mother to migrate from Ireland to New York.

The year of our Lord 1893 finds him making his way as a newspaper distributor and fixated on the election of Carter Harrison, Sr.* to his fifth non-consecutive term as mayor. Harrison secured the win and was sworn in during the spring of that year, in time to preside paternally over the Chicago World’s Fair.

Prendergast was an ordinary Chicagoan who had extraordinary expectations from the Democratic machine. In a situation reminding of the nutter who murdered President James Garfield when he wasn’t appointed ambassador to France, Prendergrast anticipated from his political cause the boon of patronage vastly outstripping his rank. In Prendergast’s case, that meant an expected appointment as the city’s Corporation Counsel, which would have been as lucrative as it was unmerited.

When that didn’t happen, Prendergast did what any concerned citizen would do and called personally at the mayor’s house to shoot him dead.

The man’s lucidity was the only real question in the courts and — again like Garfield’s assassin — they decided he was sane enough for gallows. Notably, he was defended in a post-conviction sanity hearing (though not at trial) by 37-year-old Clarence Darrow. Not yet a legend, Darrow by this quixotic turn signals his life’s imminent pivot from established corporate lawyer — which was the job he held at the time of representing Prendergast — to populist crusader — which was the mission he embarked upon within a few weeks, resigning like a king from the railroad that employed him to represent the militant who was leading a strike against that railroad.

In his eventful life, Darrow was involved in some 50 murder cases, many of the headline variety. Prendergast was the only man ever represented by Darrow who swung.

He makes a brief and ranting appearance in the 1991 made-for-TV movie Darrow, seen below from about 8:30.

* Not to be confused with his son, Carter Harrison, Jr., who would also go on to win Chicago’s mayoralty.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Illinois,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Notable Participants,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1935: Fred Blink, with hatred on his lips

Add comment April 23rd, 2020 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. 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.)


Headline from the Auburn (N.Y.) Citizen-Advertiser, April 23, 1935.

“I wish I had Corrick and Wynn on my lap.”

—Fred Blink, convicted of murder, electric chair, Illinois. Executed April 23, 1935

The men Blink addressed in his final statement were Tim Corrick, the husband of one of his victims, and L. L. Wynn, the prosecutor in the case. Blink claimed that Corrick gave him poisoned whiskey, which caused his murder spree. The World War I veteran was convicted in the shooting deaths of his former business partner and four other people. After the verdict was pronounced, Blink had to be lifted from his chair and forced from the courtroom.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Guest Writers,Illinois,Murder,Other Voices,USA

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1969: Fred Hampton, “good and dead now”

Add comment December 4th, 2019 Headsman

Today is the 50th anniversary of the December 4, 1969 extrajudicial execution of American revolutionary Fred Hampton.

This charismatic — nearly every bio uses this word — 21-year-old star of the Illinois Black Panther Party had in his brief life shown himself a visionary exponent of radicalism; he would end as one of the signal martyrs to his movement’s violent suppression.

Well did he know it.

“If you’re asked to make a commitment at the age of 20 and you say, I don’t want to make a commitment only because of the simple reason that I’m too young to die, I want to live a little bit longer. What you did is, you’re dead already,” Hampton once mused. “You have to understand that people have to pay the price for peace. If you dare to struggle, you dare to win. If you dare not struggle then damnit, you don’t deserve to win … And I think that struggle’s going to come. Why don’t you live for the people? Why don’t you struggle for the people? Why don’t you die for the people?”

Emerging late in 1966 out of Oakland, Calif., the Black Panthers were a revolutionary and pointedly armed movement that fused black power demands with critique of the entire edifice — war, imperialism, capitalism and the rest of it. Although the organization was dissolved in 1982, the Panthers’ actions and legacy are still quite controversial and their mere specter remains a potent bogeyman for much of contemporary white America.

One thing is for sure: in their moment, they scared the shit out of the powers that be. Within months of its founding, the Federal Bureau of Investigation turned upon the Panthers its COINTELPRO program of domestic surveillance, suppression, and assassination. One particularly notorious FBI memo drew a bead on “Black Nationalist-Hate Groups” with an avowed intention to “prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement” — and to “pinpoint potential troublemakers and neutralize them”.

Fred Hampton isn’t mentioned by name in this chilling missive from early 1968; he was just then beginning to emerge onto the FBI’s index of rabble-rousers. (Literally, the feds had a list called the “Rabble Rouser Index”.) He was fresh out of high school in 1966, and subsequently a wildly successful NAACP chapter leader, but gravitated to the new Illinois Panthers organ by 1968 where he quickly became its most outstanding organizer and spokesman, the prospective future face of a stirring cross-racial, class-conscious justice movement that Hampton perceived with a wisdom well beyond his years. Under his leadership the BPP spun out health care programs, legal aid programs, and free breakfast programs; he forged the original Rainbow Coalition* that brought rival street gangs and activist groups from different racial communities into a shared political ambition.

“We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity,” Hampton said. “We’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism.”

Just as energetically did the FBI work — and succeed, in the end — to break up such alliances, using informers and agents provocateur and false flags to encourage schisms and discredit leaders. Chicago’s police department was a ready collaborator in these operations; its relationship was the Panthers was hostile and often violent. Just three weeks before Hampton’s murder, two Chicago cops and a 19-year-old Black Panther were killed in a shootout. (Hampton was in California at the time.)

We don’t have the full documentary paper trail with deliberations and countersigned orders, but the known facts (and the smug grins of the cops) admit no reasonable dispute this side of performative naivete that Hampton was assassinated by a state death squad — “executed”, if you like, to fit an admittedly expansive read of this here site‘s mandate.

A compromised Hampton bodyguard named William O’Neal gave his FBI handler — who also happened to be running the Chicago COINTELPRO operation targeting the Panthers — a detailed floor plan of Hampton’s apartment, which the FBI shared with the Chicago police for a raid putatively hunting illegal weaponry. On the night of December 3, O’Neal slipped Hampton a barbituate to dull his reactions for what was to come; surviving comrades would describe Hampton being roused amid the early-morning fusillade only with difficulty, responding barely and in “slow motion” even as Chicago police stormed front and rear entrances and poured nearly 100 rounds into the place. Another Hampton aide named Mark Clark, sitting watch, was blasted dead in the initial barrage, convulsively discharging his shotgun once into the ceiling as he fell. It was the only shot fired that night by any of the Black Panthers.

By the account of Hampton’s eight-months pregnant partner Deborah Johnson, corroborated by other Panthers in the apartment, Fred Hampton was injured by the volley, but alive — and cold-bloodedly finished off with a coup de grace.

First thing that I remember after Fred and I had went to sleep was being awakened by somebody shaking Fred while we were laying in the bed. Saying, “Chairman, Chairman, wake up, the pigs are vamping, the pigs are vamping!” And, um, this person who was in the room with me, kept shouting out “we have a pregnant sister in here, stop shooting”. Eventually the shooting stopped and they said we could come out. I remember crossing over Fred, and telling myself over and over, “be real careful, don’t stumble, they’ll try to shoot you, just be real calm, watch how you walk, keep your hands up, don’t reach for anything, don’t even try to close your robe”. I’m walking out of the bedroom, there are two lines of policemen that I have to walk through on my right and my left. I remember focusing on their badge numbers and their faces. Saying them over and over on my head, so I wouldn’t forget. Um, as I walked through these two lines of policemen, one of them grabbed my robe and opened it and said, “Well, what do you know, we have a broad here.” Another policeman grabbed me by the hair and pretty much just shoved me — I had more hair then — pretty much just shoved me into the kitchen area. It was very cold that night. I guess that it snowed. And, ah, the back door was open. Some people were on the floor in the kitchen area. I think it was Harold Bell was standing next to me in the kitchen area. They, ah, it was a police, ah, plainclothes policeman there, and I asked him for a pin, so I could pin my robe, because it was just open. And he said, “Ask the other guy.” And, ah, then somebody came back and handcuffed me, and Harold Bell behind the back. I heard a voice come from the area, I guess from the dining room area, which was, the kitchen was off from that area. And someone said, “He’s barely alive, he’ll barely make it.” The shooting, I heard some shooting start again. Not much. Just a little shooting, and, um, and someone said, “He’s good and dead now.” I’m standing at the, um, kitchen wall, and I’m trying to remember details of these policemen’s face, say it over and over in my head, and, and badge numbers, so, you gotta remember, gotta remember. And then when I felt like I was just going to really just pass out, I started saying the ten-point program over and over in my head. Um, at one point I turned around, the shooting had continued again, and I saw the police drag Verlina Brewer and throw her into the refrigerator. And it looked like blood was all over her. And she fell to the floor and they picked her up and threw her again. I saw Ronald Satchel bleeding. I kept trying to focus on the ten-point program platform, because I, again, I wanted to take myself out of that place. And I knew I just couldn’t break down there. Because I didn’t know if I would be killed, or what would happen.

Incidentally, Hampton’s killing was also a key catalyst for the terroristic turn of the Weather Underground — whose decisive “war council” meeting occurred later that same month of December 1969, with Hampton’s blood heavy in the air (and his picture prominently displayed on the wall) as an emblem of the futility of pacific resistance within the belly of the beast. “It was the murder of Fred Hampton more than any other factor that compelled us to feel we had to take up armed sturggle,” said David Gilbert, who’s now serving a prison sentence for a deadly bank robbery. “We wanted to create some pressure, to overextend the police so they couldn’t concentrate all their forces on the Panthers. We wanted to create a political cost for what they were doing. And we also felt that to build a movement among whites that was a revolutionary movement, a radical movement … it had to respond when our government in our name was destroying the most promising, exciting, and charismatic leadership to come out of the Black movement in a long time.” (Source) It was a paradoxical inspiration, since Hampton himself had criticized the emerging Weathermen after their “Days of Rage” riot in Chicago as “anarchistic, opportunistic, individualistic,” and even “Custeristic” — as in Indian Wars cavalryman George Armstrong Custer, famous for his defeat — “in that its leaders take the people into situations where they can be massacred. And they call that revolution.”

* The name and concept of the Rainbow Coalition were later revived by Jesse Jackson in his left-wing presidential challenges in 1984 and 1988, but there is not a continuous institutional thread from Hampton’s coalition to Jackson’s. Jackson did, however, deliver a eulogy at Hampton’s funeral on December 6, 1969.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,History,Illinois,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Shot,Summary Executions,U.S. Federal,USA

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1908: Joe James, in the crucible of the Springfield Race Riot

1 comment October 23rd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1908, the “negro boy scarcely of legal age”* Joe James hanged at Sangamon County jail in Illinois. His alleged crimes helped spark that year’s Springfield Race Riot, one of the deadliest such rampages in U.S. history.

He was a southern youth who’d been pulled north up the Mississippi, living by the sweat of his brow. As a newcomer to the Land of (in fact the very town of) Lincoln, he’d been tossed in prison for vagrancy when he couldn’t speedily demonstrate a place of employment, but he’d proven a good-natured inmate whom his jailers trusted with errands outside the walls.

On Independence Day of 1908, which was just three days before he was due to be released, James finally abused his parole and decided to take in the celebrations in Springfield’s majority-black working-class neighboroods, where he proceeded to drink himself into oblivion at one of the town’s many saloons, or so he said. (Many other witnesses did see him boozing and banging away on the piano.) He’d be awoken at dawn the next morning passed out at Reservoir Park — awoken by white men who proceeded to beat him up.


Joe James’s mughot (right) shows the effects of the thrashing.

Reservoir Park, you see, stood but half a mile from the home of a beloved North End white resident, Clergy Ballard. (Clergy was his name, not his profession: this Clergy mined.) That same Fourth of July night, an unknown black intruder had burgled the house late at night and upon being caught out had scuffled with Clergy in a running bout/flight that crossed several neighboring yards before the patriarch caught a mortal wound from the assailant’s blade.

By morning’s light, rumors of the home invasion were afoot in the neighborhood, and the discovery of an unrecognized black kid passed out in the vicinity led everyone to draw the obvious conclusion — a conclusion that subsequently became self-confirming especially given the moral panic licensed by the fact that Ballard’s daughter had first encountered the intruder in her own bedroom. “One conclusion that finds most supporters is that James was a degenerate negro, inflamed by strong opiates with a crazed brain that sought satisfaction only in human blood.” (Decatur (Ill.) Herald, July 6, 1908)

From a century’s distance the evidence, while not impossible to square with James’s guilt, is feeble and circumstantial. James had been arrested within a day of his arrival to town, so he barely knew Springfield at all; he had no motivation to select Ballard’s house, possessed no valuables taken from it, and was armed neither when he was given his day pass from jail, nor when he was taken into custody the next morning. And as his attorney* pled to James’s eventual jury in vain, “No guilty man in his right senses would go six blocks away from where the fatal blow was struck and lie down to pleasant dreams.”

Against this stood eyewitness identifications by the surviving Ballards, who had glimpsed the unfamiliar assailant fleetingly by moonlight or streetlamp and who by the time they were making their official attestations had knowledge of James as the suspect, his every particular now a mold into which liquid recollection could pour.

While it was the Ballard outrage that set Springfield on edge, a second black-on-white crime a few weeks later really set match to tinder: another North End white woman, Mabel Hallam, alleged that she’d been raped in her home by an unknown black intruder. Out of a lineup she picked George Richardson, a respected middle-class streetcar conductor, grandson to Abe Lincoln’s barber. Even while admitting that “colored men [all] looked alike,” she fingered Richardson with the insightful words, “I believe that you are the man, and you will have to prove that you are not.”

Rape across the color line even moreso than murder was a frequent incitement to mob violence, and with Richardson jailed alongside the presumed rape-aspirant Joe James, a crowd of 3,000 or more gathered in downtown Springfield on August 14 with lynch law on its mind. The sheriff thwarted its aim by spiriting both of his endangered prisoners out of town, and announced as much to the multitude, hoping it would disperse.

Instead, balked of its strange fruit, the mob rampaged through the black districts of Springfield and for that night and deep into the following day — when a 5,000-strong state militia quelled the disturbance with some difficulty — put black homes to the torch. At least nine black Springfielders died, but accounts of people forced back into their own burning homes or buried secretly by night to avoid any further incitement hint at uncounted casualties besides. Seven whites were also slain.

Horrific photos show burned-out homes and businesses, and rioters posing smugly at the scenes where they’d lynched two men — one an octogenarian who literally used to be Abe Lincoln’s friend — for no better cause than showing defiance to the mob.


Photos from the Chicago Tribune, Aug. 17, 1908.

This particular atrocity stood out even at the nadir of American race relations for its location: the hometown and burial place of former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator. Indeed, some caught on the lips of the crowd that awful night slogans explicitly drawing the connection — “Curse the day that Lincoln freed the niggers!” and “Lincoln freed you, now we’ll show you where you belong!” The Springfield events catalyzed the formation early in 1909 of the NAACP. Today, several markers in Springfield commemorate the riot of August 14-15, 1908 — but it still remains a delicate subject in the town that it violently reshaped.

A few books about the 1908 Springfield Race Riot

As for the accused men whose supposed crimes lurked behind this explosion, they proceeded to vastly different fates. Mabel Hallam’s rape charge fell apart and she recanted when it was discovered that she had a sexually transmitted disease, while George Richardson did not. Instead she charged “Ralph Burton”, the son of one of the men lynched during the riots — but this charge also failed to stick on account of there being no such son. George Richardson lived out the balance of his 76 years in Springfield and died peacefully in hospital.

Joe James, however, had no such benediction from his own unreliable accusers. Springfield still smoldered, its bloodlust alongside its ruined buildings; letters delivered to the courthouse threatened a renewed bloodbath should he be acquitted, and black families packed go-bags in the event they should make a sudden departure.

The requisite conviction ensued. James testified on his own behalf, sticking to his claim to have passed out drunk, innocent of the Ballard situation. He would have little to say to anyone beyond that time, referring the many press inquiries to his existing statements.

* There was dispute about James’s age throughout the proceedings; his mother — not an unbiased source, of course — fixed his birthday at November 28, 1890, which would have made him just 17; James estimated it at “19 or 20”. Even the largest of these figures would have made him too young to execute by the statutes of the day. The state, by contrast, officially estimated James at 23 years old.

** A man named Octavius Royall, a “former prosecutor and successful middle-class black attorney representing the local bank” who out of an uncommon measure of courage and decency “decided to represent the most dangerous of all clients.” (Source)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Illinois,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1779: Manuel, burned for witchcraft in the USA?

Add comment June 15th, 2019 Clarence Alvord

(Thanks to the late University of Illinois history professor Clarence Walworth Alvord for the guest post, which originally appeared in an essay he wrote for the centennial of the Land of Lincoln‘s 1818 statehood. For context to this 1779 execution, the area comprising the future U.S. state of Illinois had been attached by the British crown to its own recently annexed province of Quebec, formerly French and Catholic. Illinois had then been seized during the Revolutionary War by Virginia, which at this moment (and only a few years thereafter) maintained it as Virginia’s own “Illinois County”. Notwithstanding Dr. Alvord’s rebuttal, the slave Manuel is still frequently described down to the present day as having been burned for witchcraft. -ed.)

The secret of writing true history depends upon the collection of all the contemporary evidence bearing on the case. The reason that people complain of the changing interpretations of history is that new material is found as society demands a broader and broader interpretation of the phenomena of the past. There was a time when history consisted in what we call to-day the drum and fife history; the doings of the great political leaders, events of military glory; and almost no other phenomena of changing society were noted. To-day the task of the historian, however, is far greater; and he is obliged to cast his net far afield in order to collect the material for the social development of the past …

“it must be remembered that the Creoles were very ignorant and superstitious, and that they one and all, including, apparently, even their priests, firmly believed in witchcraft and sorcery. Some of their negro slaves had been born in Africa, the others had come from the Lower Mississippi or the West Indies; they practised the strange rites of voudooism, and a few were adepts in the art of poisoning. Accordingly the French were always on the look-out lest their slaves should, by spell or poison, take their lives …

At this time the Creoles were smitten by a sudden epidemic of fear that their negro slaves were trying to bewitch and poison them. Several of the negroes were seized and tried, and in June two were condemned to death. One, named Moreau, was sentenced to be hung outside Cahokia. The other, a Kaskaskian slave named Manuel, suffered a worse fate. He was sentenced “to be chained to a post at the water-side, and there to be burnt alive and his ashes scattered.” These two sentences, and the directions for their immediate execution, reveal a dark chapter in the early history of Illinois. It seems a strange thing that, in the United States, three years after the declaration of independence, men should have been burnt and hung for witchcraft, in accordance with the laws and with the decision of the proper court. The fact that the victim, before being burned, was forced to make “honorable fine” at the door of the Catholic church, shows that the priest at least acquiesced in the decision. The blame justly resting on the Puritans of seventeenth-century New England must likewise fall on the Catholic French of eighteenth-century Illinois.

-Theodore Roosevelt, The Winning of the West

An example of how easy it is to misinterpret a past event, provided all the material available is not collected, and how easy is that interpretation after the material has been found, has come under my observation … About forty years ago Edward G. Mason, at that time secretary of the Chicago Histori[c]al Society, found the record book kept by the county Lieutenant, John Todd,* in the year 1779, when Todd came to govern the territory that had been occupied by George Rogers Clark and his Virginians during the Revolutionary War. In this record book Mason found the copy of a warrant for the death of a negro, named Manuel, by burning at the stake, which burning was to take place after consolation to the criminal had been given by the parish priest. The copy of the warrant had been crossed out by drawing lines through it. Please bear this fact in mind, since it should have suggested a correct interpretation. Naturally this warrant aroused the imagination of Mr. Mason, and he vegan to search for an explanation and discovered that about this time there was an outbreak of voodooism among the Illinois slaves and that two slaves had been put to death. He drew the natural conclusion therefore that Manuel had been burned at the stake for the practice of witchcraft. Basing his interpretation upon Mr. Mason’s find, a well-known ex-president, Theodore Roosevelt, who among other occupations has dabbled in history, wrote at some length upon this episode and drew a comparison between eighteenth century Catholic Illinois, where for the practice of witchcraft men were burned at the stake with the sancttion [sic] of the parish priest and in accordance with French Catholic law, with a similar episode in the history of Puritan Massachusetts in the seventeenth century.

Fortunately there has come into my hands a full record of the court’s proceedings by which Manuel was condemned; and I find that the judges in the case, although they were obliged to listen to the superstitious accusations of negro slaves, were careful to determine the fact that Manuel and another negro had been guilty of murder by poisoning their master and mistress, Mr. and Mrs. Nicolle, and that it was for this act the two negroes were condemned to death. I then looked up the law of the land. Naturally it might be supposed as Roosevelt did that this was French law, but there was another possibility, namely that Virginia law in criminal cases would be used by a Virginian magistrate, such as John Todd. I found that the Virginia law in the case of murder of a master by a slave was death by burning at the stake so that in the case of Manuel you see that the condemnation was strictly in accordance with Virginia law and not with French law. Another document of even greater interest in the case also came to my hands. It certainly was a surprise. This was another warrant for the death of Manuel, issued at a later hour in the day, but by this later warrant the death penalty was changed from burning at the stake to hanging by the neck. To summarize then: Manuel was not condemned for witchcraft but for murder; he was not condemned to be burned at the stake in accordance with French law, but in accordance with Virginia law; and finally he was not burned at the stake at all, but was hung by the neck. This is an excellent example of the danger of drawing inferences in regard to historic events upon too narrow information. There was one fact which both Mr. Mason and Mr. Roosevelt ignored in their interpretation of the warrant. The copy of the warrant was found in a carefully kept record book, and was crossed out by lines being drawn through it. That fact should have made them suspicious of their own interpretation. Records such as this condemnation to death would not be lightly erased by the keeper of a record book. An historical Sherlock Holmes would not have been misled.

* Todd’s brother Levi was grandfather to eventual U.S. First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. -ed.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Illinois,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,USA,Virginia,Witchcraft

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1921: Carl Wanderer, of the Ragged Stranger case

Add comment September 30th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1921, the villain in the Case of the Ragged Stranger went to the gallows in Chicago.

Then-24-year-old World War I veteran Carl Wanderer entered the public’s cognizance when on the night of June 21, 1920, he and his pregnant young wife Ruth were accosted on the way home from cinema by a tramp — a “ragged stranger” in the piquant phrase that would identify both the case and the man. This stranger, who was never identified, held up the happy couple at gunpoint but Wanderer just so happened to be carrying his service pistol and exchanged gunfire with the mugger. After the hail of bullets was over, the ragged stranger was dead and his wife lay mortally wounded in his arms.

The obvious catnip themes — the young bride, the valiant troop, the machismo shootout — instantly made for a national news crime story.


Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 23, 1920

But it wasn’t many days that Wanderer’s self-flattering story enjoyed the public’s credulity.

Mr. Ragged’s weapon turned out to be an army-issue pistol just like Wanderer’s own … in fact, Wanderer had borrowed it from his cousin just days before the deadly fray. And this connection in turn led Wanderer to admit under intense police questioning that the tramp was a down-and-outer that Wanderer himself had hired to stage the mugging as a pretext under which Wanderer would murder his wife. Having so done, Wanderer realized that capital felonies are really best without surviving witnesses, so that was the end for the Stranger too.

Wanderer’s confessions, well, they wandered. The unifying thread was the man’s obvious desire to exit his marriage; what’s not clear is whether this reason was the object itself or further to some greater purpose. There were hints that the motive was pecuniary or even that Wanderer was homosexual; his defense would eventually raise a family history of mental illness. Wanderer himself at one point said that he wanted to return to military life;* but, investigations also turned up a scandalous flirtation with a 17-year-old customer of his butcher shop to whom he had made bold enough to send billets doux before his wife’s body was cold.

Chicago, Illinois
July 6, 1920

Sweetheart,

I am very lonesome tonight. I thought I would drop you a few lines as I am ever thinking of you.

The reason I wouldn’t meet you at your house is this. The people would talk about us.

Someday I will tell you a whole lot more. I have been double crossed by some people.

Good night little lover & happy dreams to you.

From Carl

After a jury outraged public opinion by failing to hang him for his wife’s murder, he was tried again before standing room only audiences for the stranger’s death — in effect a second bite at the apple. His young flame Julia Schmitt made a humiliating appearance on the stand which would set up a scorching summation by the state’s attorney.

He saw a vision of the future. It included the army life and Julia. But in that vision was no trace of Ruth who was soon to be a mother.

Ruth must die.

Kisses for Julia, bullets for Ruth.

The man who killed his wife and unborn babe.

That’s the kind of a man he is. See his calm face.

An actor.

But a yellow coward, and a murderer.

Send this cowardly, contemptible wretch, who deliberately and cunningly took the lives of his young, trusting wife, her unborn baby, and the poor, innocent, ragged, unidentified stranger, to the gallows. The man who had kisses for Julia Schmitt and bullets for the one he should have loved and cherished most has forfeited all claims to go on living on this earth.

There is abundant proof of this miserable creature’s guilt. You know as well as I do that he has violated every law of God or man. He deserves death. Even death is too good for him. Send him to the rope. Don’t weaken — give him the punishment he deserves.

Hang him.

And they did.


Belleville (Illinois) News Democrat, September 30, 1921

After hearing the condemned sing on the gallows, one wag present reportedly quipped that Wanderer deserved hanging for his voice alone.

This ragged old case has quite good coverage on this here World Wide Web. Some of Carl’s wanderers include:

* Perhaps not coincidentally, his unit had seen very little combat during the Great War.

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

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1865: Francis Johnson (Francis Harper), lynch survivor

Add comment December 22nd, 2017 Headsman

From the Chicago Republican, Dec. 23, 1865:

Special Despatch to the Chicago Republican.

WATSEKA, Iroquois Co., Ill. Dec. 22.

Francis Johnson, alias Francis Harper, was executed at Watseka, Iroquois county, Ill., on Dec. 22, for the murder of Dr. W. Nelson, of Muncie.

THE MURDER.

The murder was committed on the night of Nov. 2, about half a mile south of Gilman station, on the Illinois Central railroad. Harper and Nelson got off the passenger train at Gilman, and started on foot for Onarga. When about half a mile south of the station Harper drew a pistol and shot Nelson through the head but not so as to cause instant death. When he saw the pistol-shot did not kill Nelson, Harper sprang upon him and choked him to death; then robbed the boy of a few dollars in postal currency, and took the murdered man’s clothes, with the marks of blood upon them; also his valise, watch, and ring — all of which were marked with the owner’s name. Harper went to Onarga; had a tailor mend the torn and bloody coat, took the cars for Chicago, and was arrested on the train, through the agency of a telegraphic message to the conductor, who found the property in his possession. Harper was taken back to Gilman, and hung three times by a mob, but was cut down by Sheriff Martin before quite dead. At last the Sheriff got him away, and he was taken to Kankakee. He was brought from there and tried at the last term of the Circuit Court, convicted, and sentenced to be hanged on the 22d inst.

HIS TRIAL AND CONVICTION.

The evidence upon which Harper was convicted of the murder of Nelson was purely circumstantial, but conclusive. It was proven that he had hired a revolver in Kankakee, and furthermore that he had accompanied the murdered man on the cars of the Illinois Central railroad to Gilman, at which station they left the train together. It was also substantiated on the trial that he had been boarding with him at the Murray House at Kankakee, nearly a week prior to the time; and when Nelson expressed the determination to go to Gilman, Harper immediately announced his intention of accompanying him. After getting off from the train there, Harper asked Nelson to accompany him to the house of a friend, which invitation was accepted, and the two proceeded down the track together. This invitation on the part of Harper was merely a ruse to decoy his victim into some lonely spot; and, when they had proceeded about one hundred rods, Harper, stepping behind Wilson, drew his revolver, and shot him, as detailed above.

All these details were fully substantiated upon the trial; but in addition to them, Harper, when he was arrested, had upon his person Nelson’s coat, torn and covered with blood; the knife, watch, clothing, satchel and box of the deceased; and upon the latter were Nelson’s initials. After the case was given to the jury, they were out but a short time, when they returned a verdict of “guilty.”

EFFORTS AT COMMUTATION.

Harper was not without relatives, and, upon the announcement to them that he had been sentenced to death, they addressed themselves assiduously to the work of endeavoring to secure for him a reprieve, or commutation of the sentence to imprisonment for life. Gov. Oglesby, however, refused to grant their request; and since neither Judge Starr, who presided at the trial, nor the District Attorney, could be induced to add their signatures to a petition in his behalf, it became evident that the murderer must pay the full penalty of his crime.

WANT OF SYMPATHY.

To say that not a particle of sympathy was manifested by the people of Iroquois county in behalf of Harper, would be no more than speaking the honest truth. We have already stated that so outraged were the people against him at the time he was held in custody at Gilman that he was taken from the officers and hanged by the summary process of Lynch law, but after a desperate effort by the sheriff and his officers, was rescued from the hands of the mob and lodged in jail at Kankakee. Throughout his confinement, during his trial, and after his sentence, there was scarce an individual to be found who expressed a regret at the terrible fate which awaited him, or who entertained a doubt of his guilt.

DENIES HIS GUILT.

The prisoner, throughout the time that intervened between his sentence and Friday of last week, strenuously denied his guilt. No persuasion or entreaty could move him, and no assertion on the part of those who visited him in his cell, that they believed him to be the murderer of Nelson, seemed to move him in the least. To every interrogatory he gave the stereotyped response that he was innocent and knew nothing about the murder, though at times he seemed very humble, and shed tears when conversing with visitors upon the subject of the murder and his approaching doom. To those who were familiar with him he seemed to be borne up by some hope of reprieve, faint though it was, and an escape from the death to which the law had condemned him.

HIS CONFESSION.

One week ago today, Harper confessed his guilt. It was not, however, until assured that all hope of escape from death upon the gallows was out of the question and that all, including his own counsel, believed him to be guilty, that he unburdened his soul of the great secret it bore and escaped the additional sin of going before his Maker with a lie upon his lips. He had been visited in the morning by Dr. Thayer, who earnestly urged him to reflect upon the perilous position he occupied and besought him to make a full confession of his guilt. Bursting into tears, he confessed that he did shoot Nelson on the night of Nov. 2, between Gilman and Onarga. He also confessed that he hired a revolver in Kankakee for that purpose, and that he intended to kill him when they left that place together. He said that the shot did not kill Nelson; that he had a hand-to-hand struggle with him, and that he was not dead when he left him. He further said that he got his own coat bloody, and that he would have given his own life if he could have called Nelson back to life after he had done the fatal deed. He further confessed that he changed his name from Harper to Johnson, and he deserted from the army. The prisoner also said that he had felt for some time a desire to unburden his heart and acknowledge his guilt to his fellow-men, before his God, and seek his pardon. He said that he did not commit the murder for money and reward, but because he was in an unhappy state of mind, which drove him to desperation.

NOT GUILTY OF OTHER CRIMES.

The prisoner denied having participated in or committed other crimes. When asked if he knew anything about the mysterious disappearance of De Los Carrier, he replied that as God was his witness he knew nothing about him; that Nelson was the only man he ever murdered. In this statement the prisoner evinced much candor and honesty, and many believed he was speaking the truth.

THE EXECUTION.

The sentence of the law was carried into effect today, and Harper was executed. Since his sentence he has been confined in the jail at Kankakee, from whence he was brought to this place last evening. During the past few days he has exhibited signs of sincere penitence, and expressed the hope that God had pardoned his terrible sin. In the transit from Kankakee to this place he was far more cheerful than it was expected he would be, and conversed freely with those in attendance upon him.

PREPARATION FOR THE EXECUTION.

Sheriff Martin had made all possible preparation for the execution of the condemned, and, notwithstanding the oft-repeated threats on the part of the people in this locality that the execution should be a public one, it was conducted in a strictly private manner. He called to his assistance a guard of fifteen veteran soldiers, who were stationed around the enclosure in which the execution took place, and effectually guarded the execution from any interruption. The arrangements of this officer were made in a most judicious manner, and the result proved them to be every way successful.

THE GALLOWS.

The arrangement of the instrument of death was different from that ordinarily used, in that the culprit was suddenly jerked up instead of being dropped through a trap, as is ordinarily the custom. A heavy weight attached to a rope passing over a pully, was held by a cord in such a manner that, when this cord was cut, the weight dropped six feet, jerking the unfortunate man suddenly from his standing place into the air. The drop was frequently tested, and found to work smoothly prior to the execution.

HIS LAST NIGHT ON EARTH.

Harper passed his last evening upon earth in devotional exercises. He manifested little nervousness, but read his Bible and said his prayers calmly and quietly, and with hardly the air of one who knew he was to die upon the morrow. He also conversed freely with his spiritual advisers, and sometimes alluded to his approaching end calmly and seemingly without fear. At a late hour prayer was offered in his behalf by those in attendance, in which he joined, and soon after he retired to rest, and during the greater portion apparently slept soundly and quietly.

THIS MORNING

He arose very early, and when asked how he had passed the night, replied that he had rested well. Breakfast was brought him, of which he partook with a good relish, and afterward engaged in conversation with Dr. Thayer, who had so often visited him during his confinement. In this interview he talked freely and again expressed the hope that his sins had been forgiven. The sacrament was administered to him by clergymen who were in attendance at ten minutes before eleven o’clock, and at its conclusion he was directed to prepare himself to proceed to the place of execution. He signified his readiness to accompany the officers, and with them walked forth to die.

AT THE GALLOWS.

Arriving within the enclosure, within which the scaffold had been erected, he was permitted to warm himself for the day was bitter cold, and upon being asked if he had anything to say, replied in the affirmative. In a few words, earnestly spoken, he urged the spectators to take warning by his fate, and entreated them to beware of bad company, which he said had taught him habits which led him to the commission of the terrible crime for which he was about to die. He again acknowledged his guilt and the justice of his punishment, and at the conclusion of his remarks was conducted to the scaffold.

Harper stepped upon the gallows at 11:05 , and was immediately dressed in the shroud prepared for him. He then sang one verse of a hymn in a clear voice, the noose was adjusted around his neck, and the cap was drawn over his face and fastened. At 11:15 the drop fell, and Francis Harper had paid the penalty of his earthly crimes.

He was jerked up six feet, but fell back two feet. The neck was not broken. A few contortions, and he was pronounced dead at 11:19 by the attending physicians. At 11:30 the body was taken down, and will be forwarded to his father at Effingham, Ill. Everything passed off quietly; and thus died one who acknowledged his guilt and admitted the justice of his punishment.

HIS EARLY LIFE.

Harper was twenty-two years of age, and was born in Morgan county, Ind. He had no Christian education, except the good counsels of his mother, which were disregarded. In 1864 he joined the 70th Indiana regiment, but soon after deserted. Since that time he has led a career of crime in this State, which yesterday terminated upon the gallows.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Illinois,Murder,Theft,USA

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1892: Thomas Neill Cream, “I am Jack the …”

Add comment November 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1892, globetrotting murderer Thomas Neill Cream hanged.

Act I

Glasgow-born, Cream grew up in Canada and did his parents proud by becoming a doctor with a big black moustache.

He manifested an early knack for being in the vicinity of patients who died unexpectedly: Cream’s wife Flora died of consumption in 1877 while on a medicine regimen he had prescribed her (granted, Cream himself was away in London at this time), and a patient and possible mistress turned up dead outside the good doctor’s offices overdosed on chloroform. As suspicion burgeoned, Cream legged it for the United States.

Cream set up as a red light district abortionist in Chicago, and it didn’t take long for his special gift to manifest again. He beat one murder charge when a patient’s rotting corpse was found stashed in his midwife’s apartment; but, in 1881, epilepsy pills he provided another mistress for her husband turned out to be spiked with strychnine in a botched attempt to stitch up the druggist for blackmail. Daniel Stott ended up dead; Thomas Cream, in Joliet — 31 years old with a life sentence.

So ended the homicidal career of Thomas Cream … until 1891, when Gov. Joseph Fifer yielded to the entreaties and bribes of Thomas’s brother and commuted the sentence.

Act II

Cream sailed for England that October and a fresh start … in the same line of work. He’d be back in custody by the following June, with at least four more murders under his belt, sloppy and incontinent now like the late-career Ted Bundy.

Cream took lodgings in Lambeth and dove right into London’s seedy underbelly. Barely two weeks after his arrival, a 19-year-old prostitute he’d plied with drinks was dead of strychnine and Cream was using his old ploy of blackmailing a random bourgeois for her murder. A few days later, he did the same thing with yet another streetwalker and another extortion target.

The nigh-industrial rapidity of these maneuvers speaks to Cream’s self-destructive impulsiveness; one can picture such a high-risk caper working (maybe Cream had even made it work sometimes back in Chicago) but only if the murder was executed with great care and the shakedown target very deliberately selected and framed. The “Lambeth Poisoner” (as the press came to call the writer of these anonymous blackmail letters) had done neither; his hamfisted money grabs only drew the attention of Scotland Yard.

Cream so ached for exposure that he gave a visiting New Yorker whom he met an impromptu tour of the sites associated with the Lambeth Poisoner — whose number had by then been augmented with yet two additional prostitutes, again offed with strychnine. Creeped out at the fellow’s suspicious expertise, the Yank tipped off the police; pieces fell into place quickly from that point.

His whole career, including that bit on the far side of the Atlantic, was exposed now and Cream (who here referred to himself as “Dr. Thomas Neill”, as reflected by the carton above) was convicted in a short trial in October 1892 — just a few weeks before the court’s sure sentence was imposed.

Act III?

Cream murdered a minimum of five people. Beyond those five, he’s worth a cocked eyebrow or more in the death of his wife and several women under his care in his medical (mostly abortionist) guise.

Chris Scott’s historical novel Jack imagines Cream as the Whitechapel killer.

But hangman James Billington put Cream into a whole different coffee when he claimed that the Lambeth Poisoner had gone through the trap uttering the aborted sentence “I am Jack the–” … meaning, Billington means you to understand, Jack the Ripper. As a result, Dr. Cream has a ledger in every Ripperology suspects table but there are at least a couple of major problems with the hypothesis:

  1. Nobody else present for the execution reported hearing any such suggestion from the condemned man; and
  2. The Ripper was an elusive criminal with a whole different m.o.; and
  3. Cream was still serving his Illinois prison term when the Ripper murders toook place back in 1888.

You might think that being clad in irons on a different continent makes for an ironclad alibi, but bars are no bar to a criminal as nimble as Jack. The Cream dossier makes the incredible claim that Cream chanced to have a lookalike double in the criminal underworld, and that the two routinely passed as one another — so Cream could have been serving his sentence while his double committed the Whitechapel murders, or vice versa.

If this twist strikes the reader as a little bit too Scooby Doo for reality, well, the man’s verifiable body count more than qualified the doctor for his place in the criminal annals … and his place on the gallows.

A few books about Thomas Neill Cream

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Doctors,England,Execution,Famous Last Words,Hanged,Illinois,Murder,Pelf,Serial Killers,USA

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1939: Robert Nixon, Richard Wright inspiration

Add comment June 16th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1939, Illinois electrocuted Robert Nixon for bashing Florence Johnson to death with a brick as he burgled her Chicago home.*


The Chicago Tribune‘s Family Circus-esque May 28, 1938 illustration of the crime scene.

Nixon’s fingerprints would also link him to three previous rape-murders in California; separately, he admitted raping and killing Illinois nursing student Anna Kuchta in 1937, although he would also argue that Chicago police tortured the confessions from his lips.

Crudely nicknamed the “Brick Moron”, Nixon was vilified in shockingly racist terms by a hostile press.

This Chicago Tribune article is one of the worst exemplars and is only the start of a much longer piece in the same vein but even straight-news bulletins routinely went with a casual “savage colored rapist” label. His possible developmental disability (“moron” …) was generally cast not as any sort of mitigating consideration but as the indicator of a superpredator: “It has been demonstrated here that nothing can be done with Robert Nixon,” the sheriff of the Louisiana town where he grew up wrote to Chicago. “Only death can cure him.”

Richard Wright allegedly mined the commentary on Nixon to inform his classic novel Native Son, which hit print the next year … and sees its lead character Bigger Thomas die in the Illinois electric chair.

* It was supposed to be a triple execution but late reprieves spared Steve Cygan and Charles Price, both murderers in unrelated cases.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Illinois,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Theft,USA

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1906: Robert E. Newcomb and John Mueller

Add comment February 16th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1906, Robert E. Newcomb and John Mueller were hanged together in Chicago, Illinois. Both were multiple murderers, with six deaths between them.

Newcomb, who was, described as “crazed” and “maddened,” hanged for the murder of Chicago police sergeant John Peter Shine.

On October 10 the previous year, Shine heard reports of a gunman terrorizing people on the streets of Englewood. Newcomb had already shot three people and one, a woman named Florence Poore who was the wife of Newcomb’s friend, was dead. Shine found out the gunman had barricaded himself in his apartment. Although he was off duty, he decided to make the arrest himself.

When he knocked on the apartment door and demanded entry, however, Newcomb simply fired through the closed door, hitting Shine in the abdomen and mortally wounding him. The officer died two hours later at Englewood Union Hospital, at the age of 42. Walter Blue, one of the others Newcomb had shot, also died of his wounds.

After Shine was shot, over 100 police officers surrounded Newcomb’s apartment and fired into it, hoping to apprehend or kill the gunman. After a long siege, Newcomb surrendered to an equally certain death in the judiciary.

Little is known about John Mueller or his crimes. Daniel Allen Hearn, in his book Legal Executions in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky and Missouri: A Comprehensive Registry, 1866-1965, describes Mueller as “a drunk and a loser who went berserk when refused money with which to buy liquor.” The 32-year-old slaughtered his wife, Annie, and their two daughters, two-year-old Martha and 18-month-old Mary, by shooting them and slashing them repeatedly with a razor.

The two killers were executed in the Cook County Jail. It was an integrated execution: Newcomb was black and Mueller was white.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Illinois,Murder,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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