Friday, May 9, 2014

Automated Gallows & The Tom Horn Myth

As most know, the Old West has its share of myths. There are myths about lost gold mines, lost gold shipments, heists that were never recovered, and so on including myths about the lives of some of the more famous figures of the Old West. There are myths about Wyatt Earp that are so untrue, that I'm betting even Earp himself would find hard to swallow.

As for Wild Bill Hickok, he loved the yarns that were spun about him. It's said he loved reading about himself in Dime Novels. And yes, there are a number of myths that are false when it comes to Tom Horn.

There's the myth that the picture of him braiding a lariat was in reality him braiding the rope that he would be hanged with. There are the myths that say he was an Apache Interpreter to Geronimo, and that he rode up San Juan Hill with Roosevelt's Rough Riders, and that there was some sort of cover up that railroaded him after he shot Willie Nickell and his father a few days later.

Yes, Tom Horn was believed to have shot but not killed Kels Nickell from an ambush -- his usual style -- just a week or so after shooting his son Willie dead. Strange how they leave that fact out in the movie Tom Horn. But then again, that's Hollywood. They don't let facts get in the way of a good story.

The myth about Tom Horn that always makes me shake my head is when I hear someone say that "no one wanted to hang Horn" because he was so liked and admired.

One Tom Horn Myth: "No One Wanted To Hang Him"

Actually, if the truth be known, I'm thinking that by 1903 there were quite a few folks who wanted to pull the lever and be known as the one to hang the notorious Tom Horn. He'd been shooting up settlers, sheepmen, farmers, and the like since at least 1892, so besides some of the family members of nesters who he had reportedly killed -- the list also including Kels Nickell who believed shot him during an ambush that shattered his arm and who who shot his son dead by accident or not.

Another part of the Tom Horn hanging myth is, "For the execution, a new type of gallows was introduced using an automatic trap activated by the weight of the convict, eliminating the need for an executioner. The gallows were invented in 1892 by Cheyenne architect James P. Julian but had not been used before."

That's just not true. Hanging was pretty much the number one method of execution in America up to the 1890's, and actually was the sole form of execution permitted by the original Constitution. A few states used shooting during the 19th century, notably California, Oklahoma and Utah which were not above using firing squads. Of course, in most mining camps and towns hangings was used more often than not.

Hanging became progressively less commonly used through the 20th century as many states adopted the Electric Chair or the Gas Chamber as a supposedly more humane alternatives to hanging. Looking at the times, the late 1800s & early 1900s, we have to remember that it was a time when people were already looking into more "humane" ways of preforming executions.

In 1881, the state of New York established a committee to determine a new "more humane" method of execution to replace hanging. Alfred P. Southwick, a member of the committee, developed the idea of running electric current through a condemned man after hearing a case of how relatively painlessly and quickly a drunk man died due to touching exposed power lines.

We have to remember that the first Electric Chair execution in New York's Auburn Prison on August 6, 1890. The electric chair was adopted by Ohio (1897), Massachusetts (1900), New Jersey (1906) and Virginia (1908), and soon became the prevalent method of execution in the United States and all but replacing hanging completely except in a handful of states.

While other means have been more prevalent, hangings were not out of the ordinary in the 20th century. In fact, Delaware has had one hanging on January 25, 1996.

As for Horn's gallows?

Cheyenne architect James P. Julian had designed the water operated gallows in 1892. It soon became known as the "Julian Gallows." And yes, contrary to popular belief, many states were already using the design long before Tom Horn's hanging.

In reality, it was a device that made the condemned prisoner hang himself. The person to be executed stood on a trap door connected to a lever that pulled the plug out of a barrel of water. As water flowed from the barrel, it caused a lever with a counterweight to rise, pulling on the support beam under the gallows.

It is said that the first man to be executed by this device, was not Tom Horn. That individual waited some 30 minutes before the trap dropped and he was hung. It was designed and built in 1892 with the reasoning that it would not require an executioner to spring the trapdoors -- thereby alleviating any stigma of guilt placed upon the hangman.

No, it was not designed special just for Tom Horn. That's just another myth perpetrated by the movie. Fact is, that water operated gallows was created 11 years before the Horn hanging and actually remained the official gallows until Wyoming began using the gas chamber in the 1930s.

On that Friday morning on November 20th 1903, it was cold, windy and gray for what would be Laramie County’s last legal execution. Horn awoke early, had a large breakfast of eggs, bacon, pancakes, bread and black coffee.

At approximately 10:30 am, Horn was led from his cell for the last time. Frank and Charlie Irwin tried to sing the Baptist hymn ‘Life’s Railway to Heaven’ (“Keep your hand upon the throttle and your eye’s upon the rails”). It's said Frank and Charlie had to stop several times to compose themselves and wipe away tears before they could start the next stanza.

Horn was wearing shackles because he tried to escape, and maybe would have if the local Merry Go Round operator hadn't caught him and stopped him. Because of the shackles on Horn, he had to be lifted onto the trapdoor of the gallows and then the black hood was placed over his head.

Thirty-one seconds after Horn was placed on the trap, he fell four-and-a-half feet into eternity. His death was not as pleasant as portrayed in the movie either. When he fell he was knocked unconscious by the heavy hangman’s knot and died of strangulation a long agonizing 17 minutes later.

Horn's body was cut down and taken to the local undertaker. Kels Nickell met the corpse at the mortuary and pulled back the rubber poncho. The father of the boy he kill, the man Horn missed  when he tried bushwhacking him a second time, Kels Nickell glanced at the dark blue face, nodded as if satisfied, then turned away. The next day was Tom Horn’s 43rd birthday.

Tom Horn’s body was retrieved from the Gleason Mortuary by his brother Charles and taken to Boulder Colorado to be buried. No, Tom Horn was not the first to be executed by an Automated Gallows.

Below is a newspaper article that appeared in the Atchison Daily in 1894 which talks about the state of Connecticut using an automated gallows similar to the Julian Gallows type used in the 1880s in Colorado, Wyoming, and Idaho, which used water. The Connecticut Julian Gallows instead used shot simply because using water meant that hangings had to wait until the summer months because water freezes.

John Cronin, Hanged by an Automated Gallows

Dec. 18, 1894 Atchison (Ks.) Daily:

HARTFORD, Conn., Dec. 18. — John Cronin was hanged here at 1:00 o’clock this morning.

The execution of Cronin was especially interesting, being the first hanging in this state under the law passed by the last general assembly and the first trial of an automatic gallows in the east.

This last is the idea of Warden Woodbridge. Aided by James H. Rabbett, a forger, now serving a two and one-half years’ sentence, the warden evolved what he considers an improvement on the hanging machine in use in Colorado.

Small shot has been substituted for water in the operation of the lever which releases the weight and an arrangement made whereby the execution may be stayed at any moment.

The compartment in which the shot are confined resembles an hour glass and the mechanism is thoroughly under the warden’s control. The shot was started in motion by the movement of a lever, and another lever would have enabled the warden to have stopped it at any time. The progress of the shot and the approaching moment when the weight would be released is indicated on a dial resembling a clock.

When Cronin had been seated in the chair and made fast, a signal from the executioner indicated to the man who had charge of the lever that he was ready. The machinery was then set in motion, there being no visible evidence of anything unusual.

The adjustment of the machine was made so perfect that the weight of 306 pounds made no perceptible noise as it was released and fell back to the ground beneath. Instantaneously the victim was jerked into the air, falling backward to within 2 feet of the floor.

One of the principal improvements over the Colorado appliance is the fact that the prisoner is not his own executioner. With the original machine,* when the prisoner was placed on the chair it released a lever which started the mechanism and in this way the man was practically forced to commit suicide.

John Cronin’s crime was the murder of Albert Skinner, at South Windsor, October 6, 1893. He was prompted by revenge for some fancied grievance. He had been boarding with Skinner for several months, but finally was ordered away. A fight ensued at the time and Cronin then went on a protracted debauch. The morning of the murder he went to Skinner’s house and meeting Skinner in the yard immediately shot him, inflicting a fatal wound.

-- end of 1894 article.  

I hope this helps folks separate the myth from what really took place.

Tom Correa