A history of death penalty in Md.

Methodology: The state has executed people by hanging, the gas chamber and, now, by lethal injection.

May 27, 2001|By Wallace Shugg

THE EARLIEST recorded Maryland execution was Oct. 22, 1773, when four convict servants were hanged in Frederick for slitting the throat of their master, Archibald Hoffman

The first description of a Maryland execution came from John Duncan, a visitor to Baltimore in 1818, who witnessed the hanging of two mail robbers from outside the prison court yard along with numerous other spectators: "I had in my pocket a small perspective glass which I offered to 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. The bodies on being cut down were immediately buried in the corner of the prison yard."

Hangings remained public spectacles through the 19th century, carried out in the counties where the condemned were convicted.

But during this time sentiment against public executions was growing. The first indoor hanging took place in January 1913 at the Baltimore City Jail , with only official witnesses admitted. Beginning in 1923, in accordance with state law, all executions in Maryland were carried out privately inside the Maryland Penitentiary. The first person hanged there was George Chelton, a 21-year-old from Somerset County, on June 8, 1923, for rape. Over the next 34 years, 75 men stepped onto the gallows, with 12 double and two triple hangings taking place.

As a representative of the press, H. L. Mencken witnessed nine hangings, including that of convicted murderer Richard Resse Whittemore on Aug. 13, 1926. His clinical and graphic account appeared Aug. 16 in The Evening Sun..

Not every hanging was noticed by the newspapers, but at least one proved different enough to be written up on Jan. 30, 1930. Shortly after midnight, Jack Johnson, 56, convicted of double murder, dropped through the trap, but the rope broke. His limp form was quickly placed on a stretcher and carried up on the scaffold where his neck was put into a fresh noose. With Johnson still supported by the stretcher, the trap was sprung again, and he was pronounced dead shortly afterward. The last to be hanged was William C. Thomas, 32, on June 10, 1955, for rape and murder.

Thereafter, four executions were by asphyxiation in the penitentiary's gas chamber, believed to be a more humane way of putting a person to death than hanging. The last execution by lethal gas occurred June 9, 1961, the condemned man being Nathaniel Lipscomb, 33, of Baltimore, convicted of rape and murder.

Changes to Maryland's death penalty statute, enacted March 25, 1994, altered the manner in which the punishment of death is carried out, providing for lethal injection.

First used in Texas on Dec. 7, 1982, it is now used by more than 30 of the 38 states where capital punishment is legal.

Maryland's first execution by lethal injection occurred May 17, 1994. The condemned man was John F. Thanos, convicted of killing two people in 1990.

Wallace Shugg is the historian for the Maryland prison system. More of his work can be found at www.dpscs.state.md.us/doc/cap/index.htm.

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