The Botched Hanging of William Williams

Back in 1889, a Republican legislator named John Day Smith had authored a bill that was designed to eliminate the spectacle of public executions. Smith abhorred the death penalty itself, but knew it would be an uphill battle to end it, so he focused his efforts for the time being on making executions as secretive as possible. What became known as the “midnight assassination law,” or Smith law, required that executions occur “before the hour of sunrise” and “within the walls of the jail” or “within an enclosure which shall be higher than the gallows.” Upon issuance of a warrant of execution, prisoners would be kept in solitary confinement. Only the sheriff and his deputies, the prisoner’s attorney, a priest or clergyman, and the prisoner’s immediate family members could visit the condemned inmate. The new law also severely restricted attendance at executions themselves. Permitted attendees were restricted to the sheriff and his assistants, a clergyman or priest, a physician, three persons designated by the prisoner, and no more than six other persons designated by the sheriff. The law resembled other state laws that strictly limited public attendance at executions to only six to twelve “reputable” or “respectable citizens.” The Smith law also forbade newspaper reporters from attending executions and stipulated that “no account of the details” of an execution, except that “such convict was on the day in question duly executed,” could be published in any newspaper. Any violation of the law was punishable as a misdemeanor.

Sheriff Miesen pledged to follow the provisions of the Smith law, and his actions, at least initially, appeared aimed at making good on that promise. When he was asked for execution-day invitations, Miesen told people that he did not make the law, and that his duty was to strictly enforce it. When one invitation seeker was shown the statute, the response was angry: “To hell with the law, I want to see the execution.” Miesen did not like refusing such requests, but he was under intense political pressure, and knew that his career was on the line.

On February 13, 1906, Sheriff Miesen hanged Williams on schedule in the basement of the Ramsey County Jail. But the much publicized execution did not go as planned. For one thing, Williams did not act penitent on the gallows. Instead, he was defiant till the end. “Gentlemen, you are witnessing an illegal hanging,” he said. “This is a legal murder,” he protested. Williams’s last words were these: “I am accused of killing Johnny Keller. He was the best friend I ever had, and I hope I meet him in the other world. I never had improper relations with him. I am resigned to my fate. Goodbye.” Worse yet, when the trap door was swung open at 12:31 a.m., Williams fell all the way to the floor. “He’s on the floor!” shouted the spectators. Miesen, who had attended a dinner party earlier that evening, had miscalculated the length of the rope. Three deputies, standing on the scaffold, instantly seized the rope and forcibly pulled it up. They held Williams aloft for fourteen and a half minutes until the coroner pronounced him dead from strangulation. Williams’s attorney, James Cormican, called the execution “a disgrace to civilization” as his client, dangling at the end of the rope, died.

And it turned out that at least one reporter was present at the execution. After the hanging, several newspapers printed detailed accounts of it in blatant violation of the Smith law’s gag provision. The St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that “the death trap was swung in the basement of the county jail, and fourteen and a half minutes later William Williams was pronounced dead.” Some execution details were described, but remarkably, the paper did not report that the hanging was botched. The paper blandly reported that “the trap was dropped, and with a snap the body hung suspended.” Other newspaper stories were more graphic. The St. Paul Daily News reported that Williams’s “feet touched the ground by reason of the fact that his neck stretched four and one-half inches and the rope nearly eight inches.” It identified the three sheriff’s deputies who had taken turns holding up the body by pulling on the rope in order to strangle Williams to death.

Likewise, the St. Paul Dispatch described in great detail the nearly fifteen minutes that the spectators were forced to endure. The paper reported:

Slowly the minutes dragged.

The surgeon, watch in hand, held his fingers on Williams’ pulse as he scanned the dial of his watch.

Five minutes passed.

There was a slight rustle, low murmurs among the spectators and then silence.

Another five minutes dragged by.

Would this man never die?

Fainter and fainter grew the pulsations of the doomed heart as it labored to maintain its function.

The dead man’s suspended body moved with a gentle swaying.

The deputies wiped their perspiring brows with their handkerchiefs.

Members of the crowd shifted from one foot to another.

There were few murmurs, which died at once.

Eleven, twelve, thirteen minutes.

The heart was beating now with spasmodic movement, fainter and fainter.

Fourteen minutes—only a surgeon’s fingers could detect the flow of blood now.

Fourteen and a half minutes.

‘He is dead,’ said Surgeon Moore.

The end has come.

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