1870: Jacob Wallace, Henry Coston, and Moses and Peter Newby

The Daily Cleveland Herald, September 22 1870


Tortured by a Bungling Hangman — Half Executed with a Rotten Rope — A Monster under the Gibbet.

The four negroes who were hanged on Friday last at the Court House of Isle of Wight county, Virginia, were convicted of the murder, under most brutal circumstances, of Josiah P. Grey, a citizen of that country, in December last. Six negroes were implicated in the crime, named respectively, Guyanetta Mears, Alfred Bunckley, Moses and Peter Newby, alias Lawrence, Jacob Wallace, and Henry Coston, alias East. The last five were immediately arrested, Mears having either effected his escape in a somewhat miraculous manner, or, as it is rumored, having been lynched by his captors. The five taken were tried at the August term of Isle of Wight county. Bunckley having turned State’s evidence, escaped, but by their own confession of complicity in the killing, four of them were condemned to be hanged. The Norfolk Virginian gives this account of the execution:

About 12 1/2 o’clock the officers entered the cell in which the prisoners were confined, and striking off their iron shackles, tied their hands behind their backs, at the same time telling them they could make any communication which they wished. To this no satisfactory answer was returned, and the condemned continued chanting their prayers for mercy from on high. As soon as the pinioning was performed, the condemned were marched out of the jail on the steps and upon the scaffold.

They walked firmly and undoubtedly, with one exception, Moses Newby, who shook as if in an ague fit, and were ranged in the following order: Peter Newby, Henry Coston, Moses Newby, and Jacob Wallace. The fatal nooses were then adjusted, when the Sheriff read the death warrant and sentence of death. The prisoners were informed that they could have an opportunity of saying a few words each.

The feet of the condemned having been pinioned upon their first taking their stand upon the scaffold, as each one ceased to speak the black cap was drawn over his head, and when all had finished, the scaffold was cleared of all but the condemned and at exactly 1 o’clock, at a signal from Deputy Sheriff Ely, the prop was pulled violently away, and the drop fell.

Then ensued a scene the recital of which we would willingly spare our readers, and a repetition of which we earnestly hope it may never be our lot to witness. As the bodies fell in the drop, the two end men, Peter Newby and Jacob Wallace, both large, athletic men, snapped the rope like pack-thread, and fell heavily to the earth, apparently insensible.

The other two remained suspended; but one was hanging by only one strand of the rope, the other two having been broken by the fall. Moses Newby died instantly, his neck being broken, but Henry Coston lived for nearly ten minutes, gasping for breath, and his limbs working convulsively.

The two men on the ground lay still for a few minutes, when Jacob Wallace rose to a sitting posture and broke into prayers and supplications. Peter Newby lay a while longer, when he also sat up, but kept silent, except groans extorted by pain. Their feet were then untied, when both stood up, Newby leaning heavily against the steps of the gallows, while Wallace walked back and forth, praying intently. New ropes were procured and adjusted to the beam, the two men hanging preventing the drop being raised. At the expiration of seventeen minutes the physicians in attendance, Drs. Jordan and Chapman, examined the bodies and pronounced them both dead, when another horror was enacted which made strong men shudder and turn pale.

Instead of lowering the bodies as is always customary, the ropes were cut, allowing the ghastly corpses to fall with a horrible thud at the very feet of the two half-hanged men standing below. Not content with this, the brutal monster who officiated as hangman, an occupation which he dishonored, and who rejoices in the name of the name of [sic] John J. Murphy, descended from the scaffold, and taking hold of the rope attached to the neck of one of the dead men, drew the body by it across the yard, and tumbled it into the coffin, as if it had been a dead dog. He repeated the operation on the next one, and seemed to think that by his disgusting brutality he had done some meritorious action.

During the whole of the time this disgusting scene was transpiring, Wallace and Peter Newby, although suffering horribly from the effects of the rope around their necks, in their fall, betrayed no emotion, save that Wallace used the time in praying loud and fast. Newby looked on apparently as unconcerned as if he was not an actor in the dreadful drama.

The new ropes, which were of stout cotton cord, having been fixed, the drop was replaced and the miserable men mounted the scaffold the second time, this time never to return alive.

The condemned both spoke to the crowd around in the same strain as before, at the conclusion of which the black caps were again drawn over their heads, and at half past one o’clock the drop again fell, and the ropes proving strong enough, they were left struggling in the air. Neither of their necks were broken, and for several minutes they gave painful evidence of life by their forced breathing and the convulsive jerking of their arms and legs. They were allowed to hang for half an hour, when they too were cut down, placed in their coffins, and taken to the court-house graveyard for interment.

[editor’s note: here’s the perfunctory and much less colorful New York Times report of the incident.]

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