Watching bad guys step into eternity


Executions: `Hung by the neck until dead' is a phrase that used to bring out the crowds as people turned out to see these public spectacles.

April 28, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The impending execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh at a maximum-security prison in Terre Haute, Ind., on May 16, has already revved up an army of enterprising ghouls.

They hope to profit from the execution of America's most hated criminal by selling commemorative T-shirts and other souvenirs.

As lawyers are busy filing lawsuits seeking to allow McVeigh's execution by lethal injection to be shown on the Web, reporters continue to seek access to closed-circuit broadcasts.

Throughout history, executions have been routinely accompanied by a carnival atmosphere. America's last public execution was no exception.

On Aug. 14, 1936, a crowd of some 20,000 climbed telephone poles, stood on rooftops and jammed streets in Owensboro, Ky., to watch Rainey Bethea go to the gallows for the rape and murder of his 70-year-old employer.

"In 18th century London, the gallows was set-up in Hyde Park, near today's Speaker's Corner, and crowds carrying picnic baskets would arrive to hear the final speech of the condemned and watch the hanging. It was a spectacle and supposed to be a deterrent," said Wallace Shugg of Catonsville.

Shugg is the author of "A Monument to Good Intentions: The Story of the Maryland Penitentiary 1804 to 1995," published by the Maryland Historical Society last year.

In the early 19th century, hangings in Maryland took place at gallows erected near county jails. In Baltimore, criminals met their fate at Gallows Hill, at Chase and Aisquith streets and Harford Avenue, and at Hampstead Hill in today's Patterson Park. After 1808, all hangings took place in the yard of the City Jail.

In 1818, a visiting Englishman recorded his impression of the execution of two mail robbers in the yard of the City Jail:

"I had in my pocket a small perspective glass which I offered two young ladies who happened to stand near me; they seemed quite pleased with the accommodation and continued to use it alternately till the whole melancholy scene was over," he wrote in his book "Travels Through the United States and Canada."

Because disorderly mobs regularly gathered to witness hangings, the executions were moved inside the City Jail in 1913 with only official witnesses admitted.

"There was a growing awareness that something had to be done and that it had become entertainment and was not nice," said Shugg.

In 1922, a new law moved all hangings to the penitentiary in Baltimore. The law went into effect in 1923 and effectively ended public executions.

While official records are somewhat sketchy, Samuel Smith may have been the last criminal to be publicly executed in the state. A chauffeur, he had assaulted and murdered Marita D. Lyon, a Goucher College student in 1921.

Tried and found guilty, he was incarcerated in the Towson Jail, an 1854 structure that still stands at Bosley Avenue and Towsontown Boulevard. On Jan. 24, 1922, Smith went to his death at 7:16 a.m. when the trap on the jail gallows was sprung. He was pronounced dead 41 minutes later.

A large crowd had gathered during the night and police were unable to hold them back as they torn down a high wooden fence which had been built around the scaffold and surged into the enclosure.

"Thirty or forty women, some well dressed, were present, and fought for places of vantage as eagerly as the men," reported The Sun

George Chelton, who had killed a young girl in Somerset County, was the first to be hanged in the Maryland Penitentiary on June 8, 1923.

Seventy-six criminals died on the penitentiary gallows until the practice was abandoned in 1955 after the execution of William C. Thomas. Thereafter, executions took place in the gas chamber. Today, they are by lethal injection.

Russell Baker, retired New York Times columnist who was a Sun reporter in the early 1950s, recalled the rather questionable competence of Maryland's hangman in those years.

"Consequently, a certain percentage of his ministrants failed to receive professional neck fractures when they dropped. These failed works hung there - before the mantelpiece, as it were - gurgling and choking for 15 or 20 minutes. ."

One such botched hanging occurred in 1954 whe G. Edward Grammer faced the noose. Grammer had been convicted of first degree murder in the death of his wife in 1952.

Gruesome details were not to be found in Sun news reports of hangings, wrote Peter J. Kumpa, a now retired Evening Sun columnist who witnessed Grammer's final moments.

"How would a Roland Park resident take it while sitting over his or her breakfast," he wrote in 1983.

"The hanging was bungled. The neck was obviously not broken in the fall. There was no instant, quick or merciful death," he wrote.

After struggling and squirming for 20 minutes, Grammer finally choked to death, wrote Kumpa.

"Why all this ugly recounting now? Roland Park can certainly take it. And a few details may help keep the hangman away. If all the ugly details had been printed way back then, we may have crawled away from our official practice of barbarism a little earlier," wrote Kumpa.

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