Execution by Hanging By: Sue Eckhoff, Grundy County Heritage Museum
June 21, 2013
Legal hangings in early American days were readily accepted by the public as a proper form of punishment for serious crimes. It was also accepted and practiced for activities that are not considered crimes at all today, such as witchcraft. Hangings began in the U.S. pretty much at the same time that settlements began to be formed. The first hanging in the New World was John Billington, who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620. Billington was prone to blasphemous language and the ships’ captain had his hands and feet tied together as an example of a sin-struck man possessed of a Devil’s tongue. That wasn’t however what got him hung. Ten years after landing, Billington became the prime suspect in the murder of another settler, John Newcomer. Soon the man was summarily hanged by an angry mob of pilgrims in 1630. In 1647 people began being hanged for witchcraft. In 1692 both men and women were hanged after the famous Salem witchcraft trials. One of the cases was a 4-year old, who was convicted of witchcraft and sent to prison. Her mother was hanged, and the little girl stayed in prison for many more months, having lost her mind before she was released. Skip to the rough justice of hanging in the westward expansion of the 1800’s. The state of Montana holds the record for the bloodiest vigilante movement from 1863-1865, when hundreds of suspected horse thieves were rounded up and killed in massive mob action. Lynching found an easy acceptance as the nation expanded westward to the frontier. Vigilante committees summarily made the decision to execute in order to repress crime. Even in areas were law enforcement existed, prisoners were often times dragged from jail by a lynch mob and executed. In 1876 in Deadwood, South Dakota, Wild Bill Hickok was shot in the head by Jack McCall. McCall was tried, but claimed that Hickok had shot his brother, and where was the crime in killing a killer? The judge and jury agreed and set him free. Arrested again a few months later and hauled before a federal judge, who ruled the first trial invalid because Deadwood was in Indian Territory. This time they produced a witness who testified that McCall had no brother! McCall was hung. When his body was exhumed nearly a hundred years later, a length of rope was still around his neck! And back on the Civil War battlefields, soldiers were being hanged by the dozens for crimes such as guerrilla activity, espionage, treason, and desertion. Not all hangings were the result of vigilante justice. The most public legal hanging was the execution of the conspirators who were guilty of killing Abraham Lincoln. Mourning Lincoln the government began an investigation, identifying eight members of a conspiracy team, including one woman, Mary Surratt. She was the first woman ever legally executed by the Federal government. Four were hanged before hundreds of spectators. Public hangings often became social events. Families attended with picnic baskets in hand. Vendors sold souvenirs and photographers took pictures of the event. Public executions were ceased in the United States in 1936. In no time of our countries history was there more lynchings than the vigilante justice of the KuKlux Klan. In Tennessee lynchings took on epidemic proportions, with prejudices extending from blacks to Native Americans, Mexicans, Asian immigrants, and European newcomers. 1892 was the worst year for lynchings in America, with vigilantes still acting as judge and jury in the Old West, and continued racial tensions in the south, one hundred and sixty nine blacks and 69 whites were hung in this one violent year.
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