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Execution by hanging

Discussion in 'Civil War History - General Discussion' started by Bobbie, Nov 5, 2009.

  1. Bobbie

    Bobbie Cadet

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    "We were called out to witness the first and, so far as I know, the only execution by hanging. Thomas R. Dawson had been a member of Company A, 19th, but was transferred to the 20th Massachusetts when our men re-enlisted. He had been a soldier in the English army, and wore medals for bravery. One night while on picket he left his post, and, being under the influence of liquor, went outside the lines and committed an assault upon an old lady. Dawson protested his innocence of the terrible crime, but acknowledged that he was drunk and had left his post. The woman swore against him, and the sentence of the court-martial was that he be hanged. The officers and men of the 19th did all in their power to save him; we signed a petition to President Lincoln asking for a reprieve, and sent it by a Catholic chaplain, Dawson being a Catholic. The President would have been pleased to grant our prayer, but he said the complaint from army officers was that he was destroying the discipline of the army by so often setting aside the findings and sentences of courts-martial, and he dare not do it.
    April 14 was the day assigned for the execution. The 2d division of the 2d corps was formed in a hollow square, ranks opened, facing inward. Dawson was placed in an open wagon, seated on his coffin. With him rode the provost marshal and his spiritual advisor. The band was in advance, playing the dead march. Files of soldiers, with arms reversed, marched on each flank, and in front and rear. As they passed our lines Dawson smiled and bowed to those he recognized. When he arrived at the scaffold, which had been erected in the centre of the square, he ran up the steps, and before the black cap was pulled down said, Good-by, comrades, officers and men of the 19th. I thank you for what you have done for me. May you live long and die a happy death; I die an innocent man. The cap was then drawn down, the drop cut, and poor Dawson was launched into eternity, but not so soon as was intended; the rope was new and stretched so much that his feet touched the ground, and the provost marshal was obliged to take a turn in the rope. It was a horrible sight, and set me forever against execution by hanging. After he was pronounced dead by the surgeon he was taken down, placed in his coffin, and lowered in a grave that had been prepared. The troops marched past and looked into the grave.
    I presume that the impressions desired were produced upon the minds of the men, but the remarks were that it was too bad to hang men when they were so hard to get, and if they had let him alone a few weeks Johnnie Reb would have saved them the trouble".
    (J.G.B.Adams, Reminiscences of the Nineteenth Massachusetts Regiment, Boston 1899, p. 84-86)




    I have a few questions about this execution:
    Why Dawson was sentenced to be hanged instead of being executed by firing squad?
    From this text it appears that the President was stopped from pardoning this soldier by some "complaints from army officers"... so, didn't he afterwards give pardon to any other soldier sentenced to death? Was he often petitioned to change decisions of court martials?

    And one digression... For me, in cases like this one, when the execution doesn't happen in the first try, the convict should be acquitted :angel:
     

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  3. Severon

    Severon Cadet

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    I have to agree with you there Bobbie. The convict should be acquitted but not released.
     
  4. diddyriddick

    diddyriddick Sergeant Major

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    Not meaning to split hairs here, but once acquitted there would be no choice but to release him. Acquittal means he is innocent. I think what you are looking for is commutation of sentence.
     
  5. captainrlm

    captainrlm Cadet

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    Lincoln was accused of pardoning too many soldiers by army officers, and he did grant them, but usually in instances of pickets falling asleep on duty or deserting.
    When it was more an actual crime - in this case, rape - he was not quite as lenient. from what I understand.

    Reading requests for pardons and deciding how to act upon them took a lot of his time, but he insisted on doing this duty as he wanted to spare as many lives as possible. He would spend hours and hours going through such cases on occasion, with people like his private secretaries Nicolay & Hay, or judge advocate Joseph Holt helping him.

    Army officers did, in fact, accuse him of hurting discipine with as many pardons as he issued. One book on this topic is "Don't Shoot that Boy! Abraham Lincoln and Military Justice" by Thomas Lowry.

    I have no idea why this man was sentenced to hanging, other than that's just what the court-martial decided.
     
  6. Scribe

    Scribe Cadet

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    Perhaps as an act of kindness.

    Note the following dialogue from George Bernard Shaw's The Devil's Disciple.

    RICHARD
    I think you might have the decency to treat me as a prisoner of war, and shoot me like a man instead of hanging me like a dog.

    BURGOYNE [sympathetically]
    Now there, Mr. Anderson, you talk like a civilian, if you will excuse my saying so. Have you any idea of the average marksmanship of the army of His Majesty King George the Third? If we make you up a firing party, what will happen? Half of them will miss you: the rest will make a mess of the business and leave you to the provo-marshal's pistol. Whereas we can hang you in a perfectly workmanlike and agreeable way. [Kindly] Let me persuade you to be hanged, Mr. Anderson?

    .....

    RICHARD
    ... Thank you, General: that view of the case did not occur to me before. To oblige you, I withdraw my objection to the rope. Hang me, by all means.
     
  7. captainrlm

    captainrlm Cadet

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    Here is a bit more information from chapter 16 of Lowry's book.

    Page 263: "Lincoln looked for a chance to spare teh nonviolent offender. He did not like crimes of meanness or cruetly, nor did he look kindly upon crimes against women, and, most vividly of all, he did not tolerate men who came into the Union seeking candidates for the job of killing Union men."

    A couple pages earlier, Lowry claimed that Lincoln agreeed with the sentences that reached him from departmental commanders 84% of the time (page 258) and he included a graph of how often Lincoln agreed with them on certain crimes, including 0% for sleeping sentries, 5% on deserters, 83% for rapists and 100% on Confederate recruiters (there are more listed, but I chose those.)

    Lowry points out: "There was a tradition that Lincoln was carelessly generous with clemency and in dsagreement with his military establshment on the subject of discipline. Our findsings show little basis in reality for such tradition, and in fact quite the opposite is true."
     
  8. Glorybound

    Glorybound Major Retired Moderator

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    Yes, I agree that if the poor b*stard survived all of that then he should have been allowed to go and resume his duties with his regiment... along with a "sorry about that."

    There aren't enough details in this man's letter to really explain the prolonged death. "...the rope was new and stretched so much that his feet touched the ground, and the provost marshal was obliged to take a turn in the rope." It seems to me that the condemned man's neck still would have been broken with his feet "touching" the ground, so there must have been enough weight placed on his feet when he dropped, and not enough on his neck, to accomplish what was supposed to happen: a quick death.

    I'm assuming "to take a turn in the rope" means that the provost marshal had to hoist up the rope in some manner, enough so that the condemned man's feet rose up completely off the ground, in which case he would have then strangled to death.

    Yeah, that's pretty ugly and unfortunate, even if he was guilty of the crime, and I would ask the same question - why not a firing squad?



    Lee
     
  9. Union_Buff

    Union_Buff Captain Forum Host

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    I agree with you Lee. If the hanging was botched up, as it was, having a firing squad was probably the next best form of execution available for this soldier.
     
  10. cash

    cash Colonel

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    Execution by firing squad was considered a more honorable execution than execution by hanging. Hanging the man can be considered a final insult, saying he wasn't fit to be shot. In the case of rape, I've seen cases where soldiers were hanged, but I don't recall seeing one shot. There could be some, but I just haven't seen them.

    This was a violent crime.

    Why? It doesn't automatically wipe away his guilt. He still did the crime and the sentence still has to be carried out.

    Regards,
    Cash
     
  11. cash

    cash Colonel

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    So in the case of a botched job by a firing squad he's not patched up and let go. Therefore, with a botched hanging, he's also not let go.

    Regards,
    Cash
     
  12. Glorybound

    Glorybound Major Retired Moderator

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    James, just to clarify my post a little, I meant that if the soldier survived the initial botched hanging then I think he should have been 'acquitted', and released to continue serving with his regiment.

    I was just curious as to why there was no firing squad to begin with, which would have had several advantages, in my opinion: the firing squad would most likely have gotten the job done quickly, no gallows would have had to be constructed, and everyone in the entire division would not have had to witness this lame execution attempt, which was probably horrifying, disgusting, and totally unnecessary.

    There were probably botched firing squad executions too, but my guess is not as many as botched hangings.

    Thanks for your post James.




    Lee
     
  13. captainrlm

    captainrlm Cadet

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    Could it not be considered "cruel and unusual punishment" to make them go through it twice?

    I think there has been at least one case where the electric chair did not work after the convict was placed in it and the Supreme Court rules a 2nd try violated the Constitution.

    Of course, I don't know how that applies to court-martials, and clearly there was a different mindset in the 19th century, but I think "cruel and unusual punishment" would be the crux of any reasoning not to make a 2nd attempt at executing a convict. (It does not wipe away his guilt, so how you handle him after the first try fails is beyond me, but I think that's the argument that would be made.)

     
  14. captainrlm

    captainrlm Cadet

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    This discussion though is more about what "should have" happened than what did, and I can see the same argument for "patching him up" after a botched firing squad as I made in a previous post about the 2nd hanging attempt - cruel and unusual punishment.

    Obviously, that type of reasoning was not applied during the Civil War, with people being forced to stand on barrells, have their head shaved, wear signs with their crimes on it, etc. - cruel and unusual may have been usual at the time, but the modern argument about not allowing multiple execution attempts on the same person would be based on that philosophy

     
  15. Union_Buff

    Union_Buff Captain Forum Host

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    My mistake Lee :smile:

    I have to say I do feel sorry for the men who had to watch this scene; seeing him still alive, etc, etc. If I was one, the hanging would most likely haunt me for the rest of my days.
     
  16. K Hale

    K Hale Colonel Civil War Photo Contest
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    Isn't that the point of making you watch it?
     
  17. ole

    ole Brev. Brig. Gen'l Retired Moderator

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    Believe this is closest to the mark. The firing squad is reserved for an honorable punishment. The noose was for those beneath consideration. Was it a rule? Hardly. First, you need a rope.

    Tain't funny. Sometimes a rope was hard to come by.

    Hang him twice? Sure. Why not? He was sentenced to death. Dead is what he was going to be. Screwing up the first try is no excuse for letting him not get dead.

    Did I say that?

    Ole
     
  18. Scribe

    Scribe Cadet

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    Depends on the skill of the hangman vs. that of the firing squad.

    "One day... a bunch of a cavalry brought two of our men into camp that had gone home without leave and were reported as deserters," Pvt. Fie Snow of the 22nd Arkansas Infantry said. "The two men were court-martialed and sentenced to be shot and General Hindman [Confederate Maj. Gen. Thomas C. Hindman] approved of it.... After the preliminaries had been completed the two men were ordered to stand up side by side and their legs were pinioned together and their hands were tied behind their backs, then they were blindfolded and our detail... was ordered up and the officer in command of us lined us up in front of the doomed men and the usual order ready, aim, fire was given us. At the report of the guns one of the men fell dead and the other dropped to the ground awfully wounded, his suffering was so great that he lay writhing on the ground in agony and cried out in pitrous tones, 'Oh boys, shoot me again and end this torture.'"

    They shot him again.
     
  19. prroh

    prroh Captain

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    Just a couple of points:

    Hanging was the usual execution for rapists, There is a series of photographs taken in 1864 at Petersburg that showed the hanging of a rapist in which the gallows was erected in full view of the Confederates in order to show what the US Army thought of such crimes. The Confederates demonstrated their appreciation by shelling the area and killing several witnesses.

    As, mentioned, shooting was thought to be honorable and deserters and sleepy pickets got that. Hanging was for the less honorable like spies, murderers and rapists, although spies were also shot sometimes.

    As part of the duties of the officer in charge of a firing party, he is to administer a "coup de grace" or a pistol shot in the back of the head. So, by definition, an execution by military firing squad can never be botched.

    In the book, "Execution of Private Slovik", the combat veterans seemed to have held back as he was only hit a few times from a eight or ten man firing squard. Observing his twitching body tied to a pole, the OIC ordered the firing squad to reload for another volley. Another officer overruled that order and reminded the OIC that it was his duty to administer the "coup de grace". As the officer approached the hapless Slovik, the doctor prounced him dead, to the reief of all.

    BY total coincidence the author of the Slovik book, William Bradford Huie, was writing a book about the murder of a Black boy, Emmett Till. There were rallies, marches, etc. that Till's father died in WWII, defending the freedoms that were denied to his son. The name rang a bell in Huie's memory and he went back to the cardboard box of Slovik materials. There he saw a picture of Slovik's grave in a section of a military cemetery outside of Paris that was reserved for dishonorable deaths. Till's father was buried a few graves away as he was hanged for a rape murder. The rallies petered out after his story was printed.

    On the matter of stretching a rope, the British hangman who claims to have hanged over 500, including several hundred convicted Nazis, wrote a memoir where he describes his masterful tecnique. He claimed that he would twist the hempen rope on a wheel in such a way that the measured drop was always on the money, unlike his sloppy competitors.

    In the story cited, "giving another turn" was to get his feet off the ground". Letting the convict strangle was, unfortunetly common. The executioner had to make an ajustment while the executuin was underway so the execution would not have been stopped. Many executioners allowed a friend or relative to stand beneath the gallows and grab his feet with a hard pull if the drop had failed to break his neck. The expression, "pulling one's leg" come from this paradoxical act of kindness. The Lincoln conspirator,Powell/Paine, had no such kind friend and he took over fifteen minutes to die.

    The only "botched" hangings where the condemed walked, that I heard of, was where the rope broke as happened a couple of times, but not every time, when electric chairs had breakdowns.
     
  20. K Hale

    K Hale Colonel Civil War Photo Contest
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    Unless you're Mosby. Worst - executioner - ever.
     
  21. matthew mckeon

    matthew mckeon Brigadier General Moderator

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    Alfred Pierrepoint was a professional English hangsman in the 20th century, executing over 600 people over the course of his career, including a personal acquaintance and a man later demonstrated to be innocent. He considered weight, height and physical condition of the condemned person in determining the length of the drop. In his experienced hands, death was instantaneous. The time from Pierrepoint entering the prisoner's cell to the death of the prisoner was usually less than 15 seconds. Pierrepoint was called on to hang a couple of Americans during World War II, and he thought the lengthly procedure in US military justice an inhumane ordeal for the prisoner.
     

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