1887: Roxalana Druse, the last woman hanged in New York

On this date in 1887, 40-year-old Roxalana Druse was hanged in Herkimer, N.Y.

Ms. Druse and her daughter* had slain, chopped to pieces and destroyed the remains of Roxalana’s 72-year-old husband William.

Attention to her case ran toward the hyperbolic.

Detail of image courtesy of Special Collections Department, Harvard Law School.

As Roxalana Druse’s fatal date approached, said the Saturday Globe (an early national paper here mining the product-moving public fascination with mayhem we have noted across the pond), “she has dwindled to a mere shadow of her former self and would hardly tip the scales at 85 pounds.”

Still, this infamous-at-the-time crime would be little more than a piece of period folklore were it not for the horrible end Druse suffered.

Shrieking with terror as she was hooded (so says the New York Times account, which also reports that she deferred her last statement to her Universalist spiritual counselor, who made a general denunciation of the death penalty), Roxalana Druse was hanged on an upward-jerking gallows — and the rope reportedly failed to snap her neck, leaving her to slowly strangle to death.

This botched job in a high-profile hanging intensified pressure on the New York legislature to do away with the gallows; the next year, it became the first jurisdiction in the world to adopt electrocution for death sentences.

And Roxalana? She’s preserved in local lore in Herkimer, where she is said to haunt the courthouse where she heard her sentence.

* Roxalana Druse insisted that her teenage daughter Mary had nothing to do with it. Mary received a prison sentence, and was pardoned in 1895.

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