In an age when the death penalty has been abolished in most of the developed world, and is often frowned upon even where is practiced, it might seem difficult to believe that barely a century ago executions were not only the norm but were put unashamedly on public display. In the American Old West, capital punishment was, by comparison with today, meted out in spades. Lynching from trees and other forms of tough justice were the order of the day, and be hanged with scruples like wrongful convictions and the idea that such practices only ape the culture of violence they condemn.
Tough Justice: Hanging of a horse thief in Oregon circa 1900.
Some might argue that the Wild West was a time when justice needed to be severe: where outlaw order prevailed in the form of brutal banditry that preyed upon banks, trains and stagecoaches, judicial murder was a case of the punishment fitting the crime. Even what we now might consider lesser crimes, such as horse thievery and cattle rustling, were offenses judged serious enough to be punished by hanging – such were the handicapping effects the loss of livestock had on the victims. It was also a lesson to others to keep their hands clean and forget about law-breaking.
Tom Ketchum on the scaffold before hanging, 1901.
A cowboy and cattle rancher who later turned to a life of crime in Texas and New Mexico, Tom ‘Black Jack’ Ketchum is purported to have committed his first train robbery in 1892 and his first murder in 1895. He was also allegedly involved in the killing of Republican politician Albert Jennings Fountain and his son in early 1896, and later the same year the robbery of a store and post office after being invited inside by the owners during a storm. Following the latter crime, Ketchum and his cronies were tracked down by a posse, but emerged unhurt from the ensuing shootout while two of their assailants lay dead.
Sending a warning: 1901 postcard of Ketchum’s decapitated body after hanging.
Ketchum then joined the infamous Hole in the Wall Gang and focused on robbing trains. In August 1899, Black Jack single-handedly tried to rob the same train in the same way his gang had done just weeks earlier. The conductor recognised Tom as he neared the moving train and shot him with a shotgun, leaving him badly wounded. After being taken by a posse to hospital he had his arm amputated, and was later convicted and – unconstitutionally it turned out – sentenced to death. Ketchum’s weight and the inexperience of his executioners meant he was decapitated as he dropped through the scaffold trap door. His last words? “Good-bye. Please dig my grave very deep. All right; hurry up.”
Mob rule: Newspaper shot of the lynching of ‘Killer’ Jim Miller and others, 1909.
Some hangings in the Old West were done even less by the book. James B ‘Killer’ Miller was convicted of his first homicide in 1884 but acquitted, and soon boastingly embarked on a career as an assassin. Armed with a shotgun, he was alleged to have had a hand in at least eight murders for money, plus another six killings due to saloon and gambling disputes. After Miller had been hired to kill ex-US Marshal Allen Bobbitt, he was arrested in Texas and extradited to Oklahoma to stand trial – but with evidence weak, a mob broke into the jail and dragged Miller and three other suspects to a nearby abandoned stable for lynching. Miller is said to have shouted “Let ‘er rip!” and stepped voluntarily off his box.
Shot at the crime scene: Lee seated next to his coffin just prior to execution.
Less your typical outlaw, early Mormon pioneer John Doyle Lee was put to death for leading the Mountain Meadows Massacre. In 1856, the Fancher party, an Arkansas emigrant group, were camped in southern Utah when they were attacked by a group of Mormon militiamen dressed as Native Americans. Lee convinced the emigrants to surrender their belongings in return for safe passage, at which point 120 of the party were slain. Lee’s first trial in 1875 ended in a hung jury, but when tried again in 1877 he was sent to the firing squad. Adamant he had personally killed no one and was a scapegoat for others of his faith, Lee’s last words were: “I have been sacrificed in a cowardly, dastardly manner.”
Biting the bullet: 1914 photograph of execution by firing squad in Mexico.
Execution by firing squad was almost as much a staple of capital punishment in the Wild West as lynching, and those found guilty also bit the bullet south of the Rio Grande River. The difference is: the death penalty was abolished in Mexico in 2005.
Still, it all seems a far cry from the present where even the gas chamber and electric chair have been all but superseded by the lethal injection. Yet, more clinical though modern methods of execution may be, do they have any more care for human rights? The days of slow strangulation by short drop hanging may be over, but even lethal injection has come under fire for being too painful. At least it’s all kept hidden behind closed doors though, eh? And don’t mention miscarriages of justice.