The Botched Hanging of William Williams

Judge Bunn had no doubt that the Minnesota Legislature had the right to pass the Smith law. But because of the issue’s importance, he agreed to refer the question of the statute’s constitutionality to the Minnesota Supreme Court. Thus, on May 8, 1906, Bunn formally certified the case for appeal at the request of the Pioneer Press’s attorneys, Frederick Ingersoll and Charles Hart. The St. Paul Dispatch and the St. Paul Daily News agreed to be bound by the result of the Pioneer Press’s case.

On appeal, the St. Paul Pioneer Press contended that the Smith law went too far. “While conceding that the gruesome details of an execution of a criminal are not necessary subjects of public information,” the newspaper’s appellate brief argued, “we assert that there are many things surrounding the manner of an execution which the public are entitled to know and upon which the public are entitled to pass criticism.” For example, the newspaper asserted that the public should know the condemned man’s dying declarations and how the sheriff performs his duties. Arguing that the Smith law was overbroad, the Pioneer Press said, “The statute in question prohibits not only those things that are detrimental to the public, and we concede that ghastly accounts of gruesome details might be harmful in effect, but prohibits everything save the legal conclusion, that the execution took place.” The Pioneer Press, believing, perhaps, that it would be too radical to argue that newspapers had the right to print anything whatsoever about executions, took a more centrist position, contending that “sensational” articles should be censored but that its own articles on the Williams hanging did not cross the line.

The State of Minnesota disagreed, arguing in its responsive brief that Smith’s law was intended “to make all future executions secret except so far as certain specified witnesses may be present.” “The obvious purpose of the act,” the state said, “is the suppression of details which are nauseating and horrible and whose dissemination arouses morbidness.” Publication of execution details, it contended, “tends only to gratify a debased morbid curiosity or sensualism which is demoralizing to the public good.” The state surmised that the publication of such details might even “tend directly to promote crime, while subserving no useful purpose.” It argued that the press was not deprived of its right to print news because the law authorizes the publication of the fact that criminals are executed. Thus, the state argued that the Smith law did not prevent newspapers from editorializing on “the advisability of capital punishment.”

On February 21, 1907, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Smith law, ruling that the “evident purpose of the act was to surround the execution of criminals with as much secrecy as possible, in order to avoid exciting an unwholesome effect on the public mind.” To accomplish this objective, the court believed that executions “must take place before dawn, while the masses are at rest, and within an inclosure, so as to debar the morbidly curious.” The court specifically upheld the statutory provisions barring newspaper reporters from attending executions and prohibiting the publication of execution details. This was necessary “to give further effect” to the law’s “purpose of avoiding publicity.” “Publication of the facts in a newspaper would tend to offset all the benefits of secrecy provided for,” the court ruled. The court noted that the Pioneer Press article was “moderate” and did not “resort to any unusual language, or exhibit cartoons for the purpose of emphasizing the horrors of executing the death penalty.” This fact, however, did not save the Pioneer Press from running afoul of the Smith law. The court stressed that “if, in the opinion of the Legislature, it is detrimental to public morals to publish anything more than the mere fact that the execution has taken place, then, under the authorities and upon principle, the appellant was not deprived of any constitutional right in being so limited.”

The Pioneer Press denounced the ruling, even though it was “in full sympathy” with any law suppressing “purely unimportant and unwholesome details of an execution.” It declared that the Smith law “is not so entirely wise as its intent is worthy.” The hanging of Williams “showed that except for publication in newspapers of something more than a bare mention there was no way in which to inform the public whether a hanging was properly or even legally conducted.” The newspaper emphasized its own role—as part of the Fourth Estate—in serving as a check and balance on governmental abuses of power. The Smith law’s prohibition on reportage of accounts of executions, it claimed, “goes a little too far” because it “throws the door wide open to unmolested violation of the other clauses of that law.” Under the Smith law, the paper contended, a sheriff, “secure in the knowledge that no newspaper can describe what occurred, can make a hanging a gala occasion.”

As a result of the Minnesota Supreme Court’s ruling, the case against the Pioneer Press was remanded back to the district court to be tried on the merits. After a series of continuances, a twelve-person jury was finally impaneled on March 17, 1908, though the Pioneer Press refused to enter a plea. This forced the court to enter a not guilty plea for it. Justice—at least once it got under way—was swift. The next day, the jury returned a guilty verdict, and after that, it was not long before the legal challenge to the Smith law was at an end. On March 19, the district court imposed a $25 fine against the Pioneer Press, marking the end of the dispute between that paper and the State of Minnesota. The St. Paul Dispatch and the St. Paul Daily News, the two other interested parties, were each fined $25 as well.

These fines and the criminal case against the Pioneer Press and its St. Paul counterparts put Minnesota newspapers on notice that authorities would no longer turn a blind eye to violations of the Smith law. Given the importance of the state’s death penalty debate, some of the state’s newspapers almost certainly entertained thoughts of violating the Smith law again. However, any contemplated acts of civil disobedience by such hard-to-intimidate journalists were never given the chance to come to fruition. No more state-sanctioned executions would occur in Minnesota after Williams’s botched hanging, and the abolition of the state’s death penalty was just over the horizon.

In the end, Williams’s horrific death and the successful prosecution of three St. Paul newspapers sparked serious questions by state legislators about the death penalty’s use. While the newspapers lost their freedom-of-the press court challenge, their blatant violations of the Smith law made Williams the last person to legally hang in the state. Anti-death penalty efforts, led by state lawmaker George MacKenzie, intensified after Williams’s execution, and the Minnesota Legislature ultimately abolished capital punishment in 1911. “Let not this harlot of judicial murder smear the pages of our history with her bloody fingers, or trail her crimson robes through our Halls of Justice,” MacKenzie told his legislative colleagues in a rousing speech that year, “and let never again the Great Seal of the Great State of Minnesota be affixed upon a warrant to take a human life.”


John Bessler is an attorney in Minneapolis and an adjunct professor of law at the University of Minnesota Law School. He is the author of Legacy of Violence: Lynch Mobs and Executions in Minnesota (University of Minnesota Press), a Minnesota Book Award finalist. This article was adapted from that book.

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