The Botched Hanging of William Williams

In the aftermath of the hanging, the St. Paul Dispatch seemed to be playing both sides of the Smith law. It reported that Sheriff Miesen, despite his pledges, had violated the Smith law by inviting more persons than allowed by statute. That newspaper also reported that Governor Johnson’s office was “going to probe the sheriff’s office” but expressed the view—perhaps in light of the paper’s own violation of the law—that Miesen had not committed “any offense that calls for gubernatorial review.” The Minneapolis Journal, by contrast, wanted Governor Johnson to punish anyone who flagrantly violated the Smith law. “Perhaps the deposition of one sheriff would do as much to enlarge respect for the Smith law as anything that could be done,” the newspaper editorialized, saying that politicians “like to oblige their friends” but not “at the risk of losing their jobs.” The newspaper praised Smith’s creation as “a good law,” blaming lax enforcement on “political sheriffs” and recalling another recent hanging where “upward of a hundred persons” were present. “There is no sense nor civilization in making the execution of a criminal a public spectacle,” the paper argued, “and the world has come a great ways since condemned men were hanged in the public square for the edification of men and women and children.”

After Williams’s execution, many of the state’s newspapers urged that executions be conducted at Stillwater’s state penitentiary rather than in local jails. The St. Paul Dispatch wrote that county-controlled executions perpetuated a “local morbid element that exists in human nature.” “Just as long as a hanging is made in a local jail,” the paper opined, “will newspapers that give all the news feel it necessary to give ‘the bare details’ of the affair.” Only if convicts were executed at the remote Stillwater prison would newspapers “give no more value to it as news than could be put in the space of a ‘stick’ or two of type.” The St. Paul Pioneer Press also argued for Stillwater as the place for executions because the state prison warden “is directly responsible to the board of control, and not to the public,” and “would not dare to ignore the law in respect to witnesses even if he wanted to.” It feared that leaving executions in the hands of local officials “subject to local influences and desirous, for political reasons, to cater to friends and local newspapers” was bound to result in more execution attendees than allowed by law. The newspaper believed that by moving executions to the state prison they would be out of sight and out of mind, and therefore less newsworthy. “So long as executions are made local affairs,” the paper said, “they will be local spectacles, local scandals, and ought in the interests of decency to be fully reported.” But such calls for moving executions to Stillwater failed to go anywhere.

Meanwhile, a gubernatorial investigation of Sheriff Miesen’s conduct was getting under way. On the evening of February 13, 1906, Governor Johnson, a former publisher of the St. Peter Herald, announced that an investigation of Williams’s hanging would be conducted. “I shall examine into the execution,” he proclaimed, “and if there has been the slightest violation of the law, even a technical violation, Sheriff Miesen will have to answer for it.” “I meant just exactly what I said,” Johnson remarked, “when I sent the letter cautioning Miesen and if he has violated the law I shall go after him.” Johnson understood from “official circles” that only ten persons attended the hanging, but a St. Paul newspaper article titled “The Only Newspaper Man Who Witnessed the Hanging” freely said that thirty-two people watched it. “I have laid aside all the accounts in the newspapers and shall examine them carefully tomorrow,” Johnson concluded, warning that the sheriff’s office would be held accountable if it could be proved that reporters were present with the cognizance of the sheriff or his deputies.

The next day, Governor Johnson questioned Sheriff Miesen in his private office. Official reports said the governor went after the sheriff “real fierce,” but every explanation Miesen offered, however lame, was accepted. Johnson credited Miesen’s feeble explanations that a newspaper reporter slipped in through an oversight when a door was left unlocked, and that twenty of the people who watched the hanging were deputies. While Johnson found Miesen obeyed the letter of the law, the details of Williams’s death nonetheless grated on the governor’s nerves. The death penalty is a “survival of the relic of the past,” Johnson said, saying he would seek the death penalty’s abolition and that “the sooner it is done away with the better.” “If I as governor personally had to aid in the execution of a condemned man,” he told a friend, “I would resign my office in preference to carrying out such a duty.” Johnson’s exoneration of Miesen quickly led to a charge of political favoritism. In an article titled “Won’t Do a Thing to the Sheriff,” the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote that “a search of the political calendar suggests that this is the closed season on Democratic sheriffs.” Both Johnson and Miesen were Democrats.

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