Botched hanging led state to halt executions

  • Updated: February 12, 2008 - 6:01 PM

A small item in the Wednesday Feb. 7, 1906 edition of the Minneapolis Tribune reads, "Sheriff Miesen has arranged to test the rope and gallows upon which William Williams is to be executed next Tuesday at midnight."

Ramsey County Sheriff Anton Miesen's test seems to have been successful, but it didn't keep the execution of Williams at 12:31 a.m. on Feb. 13, 1906, from being a hideously botched affair that resulted in him being the last person executed in Minnesota.

Williams was a 28-year-old British itinerant miner and steamfitter. In 1904 he befriended young Johnny Keller when they were both hospitalized with diphtheria. Keller subsequently roomed with Williams in several places around St. Paul, and in the summer of 1904 they traveled together to Winnipeg, Manitoba. In 1905 Keller was back home in St. Paul, and was receiving a mix of love letters and threatening letters from Williams, who insisted the then 16-year-old come back to Winnipeg with him.

On April 13, Williams was found in the Keller home in St. Paul, smoking gun in hand, having shot Keller's mother and then Johnny in the back of the head and neck as the teen lay in bed. Keller's mother died a week later.

Despite Williams' defense of "emotional insanity," he was convicted on two counts of premeditated murder, which was upheld on appeal.

Sheriff Miesen was confident of his rope's strength, and the proper functioning of the trapdoor of his gallows, but his math was faulty in calculating both the height of Williams and the gallows platform.

As the condemned man dropped, his feet hit the floor.

A lurid description in the next day's issue of the St. Paul Daily News said that William's "neck stretched four and one-half inches and the rope nearly eight inches."

So deputies quickly grabbed the rope and pulled it upward, then took turns holding Williams' feet off the ground for almost 15 minutes while the life was choked out of him.

The death certificate stated that the cause of death was strangulation.

The debacle, and the newspaper coverage of it, gave ammunition to those in the state Legislature who opposed the death penalty.

House member George MacKenzie, R-Gaylord, had tried to abolish capital punishment in Minnesota in 1905 and again in 1909. He succeeded in 1911 when Republican Gov. Adolph Eberhart signed the legislation into law.

BRIAN LEEHAN

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