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In May 1905, itinerant worker William Williams was convicted of killing a St. Paul teen and the boy’s mother and sentenced to die by hanging. An 1889 state law designed to prevent executions from becoming public spectacles prohibited newspaper reporters from attending and limited the number of witnesses to a few dozen. But a St. Paul Daily News reporter somehow managed to enter the basement of the Ramsey County jail and write this dramatic and detailed account of the last execution to take place in Minnesota.
[Originally posted Sept. 24, 2006; reposting to add and update links, clean up the layout and reopen comments.]
|The St. Paul Dispatch published its execution story under this headline on an inside page.|
- William Williams
WAS RESIGNED TO HIS FATE
“Gentlemen, you are witnessing an illegal hanging. This is a legal murder. I am accused of killing Johnny Keller. He was the best friend I ever had, and I hope to meet him in the other world. I never had improper relations with him. I am resigned to my fate. Goodbye.” — William Williams’ Last Words on Earth.
William Williams has been hanged.
The drop fell at 12:32 and he was cut down at 12:46, two minutes after physicians pronounced him dead.
Williams strangled to death.
His neck was not broken by the fall.
His feet touched the ground by reason of the fact that his neck stretched four and one-half inches and the rope nearly eight inches.
Deputies then pulled the rope so that Williams’ head was kept up and strangulation could slowly go on. His feet touched ground all of the time that the death agonies were playing in his mind.
Slowly but surely life was squeezed from the body until at 12:46, just 14 minutes after the trap was sprung and 21½ minutes after Williams left his cell, death relieved the murderer of his suffering.
BY JOSEPH E. HENNESSEY
The Only Newspaper Man Who Witnessed the Execution
William Williams was strangled to death by three deputies holding the rope, which stretched, at 12:42 this morning in the basement of the county jail.
The execution was witnessed by 32 persons, all that the law allows.
Williams, who was the coolest man in the crowd, left his cell, accompanied by Father Cushen, at exactly 12:27. He walked to the elevator and then down the long flight of steps, smiling and chatting pleasantly with the priest and his two guards.
|The St. Paul Daily News’ front-page coverage of the execution featured a three-column graphic showing a cutaway of the jail where the hanging took place.|
FACES ENGINE OF DEATH.
At the foot of the stairs Williams entered the death chamber and there before him stood the machine of execution.
Without uttering a word, but slightly pale, Williams, with long strides, reached the foot of the steps. Without hesitation he walked manfully and bravely up the steps and stood facing the crowd below.
Father Cushen stood beside the condemned man and the sheriff asked him if he had anything to say. With his hands handcuffed behind him, Williams faced his hearers, and with a firm voice, but slightly pale of face, spoke the words quoted above.
When he had finished the rope was placed around his neck and the black cap adjusted. In an instant Sheriff Miesen pulled the trap and the condemned man shot down.
TRAP IS SPRUNG.
The trap was sprung at exactly 12:32.
Gradually the rope stretched until the murderer’s feet touched the floor. Then Deputies Frank Robert, Frank Picha and Frank Hanson took turns at holding up the body.
For 14 minutes the body hung there, Sheriff Miesen himself assisting at 12:44, when Williams was pronounced dead by the four physicians, Drs. Whitcomb, Miller, Ohage and Moore.
|William “Bill” Williams|
“Bill” Williams has paid the penalty of his crime.
No gamer man has walked to the scaffold in Minnesota.
With a smile on his lips, he joked with death.
With firm tread he descended to the sub-basement of the jail, where the scaffold awaited him.
It was just 12:22 when Sheriff Miesen entered Williams’ cell and announced that the hour of death had come.
For an hour Father Cushen of the cathedral, who had converted Williams to the Catholic faith, had prayed with him.
Williams stood erect and said not a word.
Frank Robert, chief deputy, stood behind. Deputies Hanson and Picha handcuffed his hands behind his back..
The procession of death started. Williams walked alone. With firm tread he covered the 30 feet that lead to the elevator.
PRIEST AT ELBOW.
With the priest at his elbow, the deputies close at hand, he descended to the basement floor.
Then came the most trying ordeal of all. Williams, undaunted, started down the 27 steep iron steps that led to the sub-basement and death. Father Cushen hurried forward and clasped his arm about the murderer’s shoulder. The deputies dropped behind.
Slowly the procession wound its way.
The door that reached to the large room beneath the cell house was reached. The door was opened. Electric lights cast a flood of bright rays on the prisoner.
A new spirit seemed instilled in Williams. He was to die as he had lived, caring naught for the future though death lurked only a score of feet away.
He rounded the ventilating fans of the jail.
Before him loomed the scaffold, grim striking, of yellow-tinted pine.
For just a second Williams quivered. Then he looked death in the face and smiled.
|Sheriff Anton Miesen|
“Hurry up,” he whispered to Sheriff Miesen, and lengthened his steps.
Almost with a bound he was at the 13 steps that led to the scaffold platform and mounted eagerly.
The courthouse clock was striking 12:30.
From across the way the strains of music from a dance at Elks’ hall penetrated softly, soothingly, to the inner recess of the jail.
“I am ready to die,” murmured Williams.
Deputies aided him to the trap.
There was a sudden movement. Chief Deputy Robert had adjusted the black cap. Sheriff Miesen took a deep breath. He cast one glance toward Deputy Robert. Then his right hand grasped the fatal lever.
Click. Then a faint thud, and “Bill” Williams’ body had dropped six full feet, and with a sudden jerk bounded upward.
Then it hung, swaying slightly from side to side. It was a twisted hemp rope that held the body that gripping tight about the throat was strangling the murderer of little Johnny Keller to death.
And, strange to say, the body did not whirl as is usually the case.
The black capped face still faced the audience. The body hung almost as it had stood upon the scaffold. The fingers scarcely twitched.
The legs did not contract.
“Bill” Williams, nervy, desperate, caring naught for life, was dying. The few spectators bared their heads. They stood transfixed with awe. It was the moment of death.
Not a sound was heard. Dr. George R. Moore, police surgeon, stepped forward and felt the dying man’s pulse.
Drs. C. A. Wheaton and Justus Ohage stepped forward.
Then silence reigned.
Tick, tick, slowly the watch told the time.
Tick, tick – “Bill” Williams’ soul was speeding to the great unknown that no man can fathom.
Five minutes, 10 minutes, 12 minutes, 14 minutes.
Still the spectators waited hushed with awe. The doctors’ fingers were on “Bill” Williams’ pulse.
|– St. Paul Dispatch, Feb. 13, 1906|
Thirty seconds more.
“The man is dead,” said Police Surgeon Moore. The other physicians nodded.
Deputy Frank Robert cut the rope.
“Bill” Williams, murderer of Johnny Keller, had paid the penalty of his crime.
The stark form was hurried to an undertaker’s wagon and taken to the county morgue.
INDIFFERENT TO DEATH.
Yet this strange, incongruous “Bill” Williams was indifferent to death.
It was just 9 o’clock when his attorney, James Cormican, entered the jail, all hope gone.
“Billy,” he said, “the jig is up.”
“Won’t the governor do something? Won’t the British consul do something?” queried Williams.
Then Attorney Cormican recounted his effort of the afternoon. How he had been unable to stay the certain death of the gallows; how he had pleaded with Judge Lochren as Mrs. Lochren, with tears in her eyes, asked that the condemned man be given a chance for life. But the law is just and certain.
And Judge Lochren, despite his tender heart, heeds ever its mandates.
So there was naught he could do to stay the execution.
NOT AFRAID OF DEATH.
“What’s the difference? I ain’t afraid of death,” said Williams. “I had 18 teeth pulled once and I think that is more pain than death will be.”
Then Attorney Cormican gave him a paper which gave Williams’ body to Mr. Cormican, but provides that the body must be interred in consecrated ground.
Williams signed the paper without hesitation.
“I don’t want the doctors to cut me up,” he said, “and send me around the world. They can cut my head up and take my brain – show people I am not crazy, that is all.”
Attorney Cormican can claim the body any time within the next 36 hours, if he inters it in consecrated ground, and he can let the doctors make an examination of Williams’ brain, if he wishes.
But Attorney Cormican would not see Williams die.
“Come and see my finish,” urged Williams.
“No, I can’t, Bill,” said Cormican. “I’ve done all I can for you. I don’t want to see you die.”
So at Mr. Cormican’s request Williams named L.C. Cole to see him die, and John H. Hilger, who had been his death watch, and Rube Reynolds, a friend of Johnny Keller’s, for whose death Williams had undergone the death penalty.
Then the attorney left.
|– St. Paul Dispatch, Feb. 13, 1906|
Father Cushen, the man who had converted Williams, came.
If was not with hope of earthly life. It was the soul of Williams that he comforted. Yet, perhaps, more than anyone else, Father Cushen was responsible for Williams’ calm demeanor, and for his strange indifference to death.
HE LOVED THE PRIEST.
“If I had met a man like that,” Williams told his jailer, “I should not be in a murderer’s cell now. I would have been an honest, upright, industrious man. I wish I had known him sooner. He is the only person besides Johnny Keller that seemed to care what became of me.”
So Williams listened while Father Cushen prayed the last prayer for his soul.
So, devoutly the murderer knelt as the priest anointed his neck and head with sacred oil and pronounced the benediction.
Then “Bill” Williams rose from his knees ready to answer the summons of death.
Then he walked steadfastly to the scaffold, for he had learned to know the God that was a stranger to his youth.
Russell James, described as a “health lecturer” in stories in the Minneapolis Star Journal, was arrested during one of his presentations in 1941. He was accused of claiming that Riddo, a health food product he sold, would cure a variety of ailments. Riddo, a concoction of powdered bananas and whey, was marketed by California bodybuilder and health food advocate Paul Bragg in the early 1940s. Judging by these photos from the Star Tribune archives, James was probably a bodybuilder himself. His secretary, Ruth Cook, was no couch potato either. Hubba. Hubba.
|Ruth Cook and her boss, Russell James, dressed appropriately for court. But photos like this don't sell papers -- or build Web traffic. It went unpublished. (Star Journal photo by Russell Bull)|
|This photo, also by Russell Bull, ran with the story below, with the caption: "RUSSELL JAMES AND BLOND SECRETARY, RUTH COOK: Will this 'picture of health' convince jury?"|
One of the women in the jury of six women and six men to hear charges of practicing healing without a license against Russell James, 50, health lecturer and “Riddo” salesman, hobbled into the jury box on crutches.
According to Reginald M. Johnson, attorney for the state board of medical examiners, James claims his patients are able to throw away their crutches after using “Riddo” and practicing the form of exercises he prescribes in his health lectures.
Johnson will be the first witness called by the state when testimony in James’ trial starts before Judge Mathias Baldwin Monday.
Ernest Malmberg, attorney for James, said the health lecturer will take the stand in his own defense in an attempt to “sell” the jury on “Riddo.” He and his blond secretary, Ruth Cook, above, are shown as they appeared before their audiences in the Wesley Temple basement.
THEY BOUGHT IT: After three hours of deliberations, the Hennepin County District Court jury found James not guilty of practicing healing without a license.
|Although it is somewhat less disturbing than the photo above, this one didn't make the paper. Say, what was going on between these two?|
This wire story – the source is unclear – appeared in several U.S. newspapers, including the Minneapolis Tribune:
What It Feels Like to be Guillotined -- a Rare Experience.
We know how it feels to be poisoned, to be hanged and to be drowned, but it has been reserved for M. Mondate, an Italian gentleman, to let the world know, through La Defense, what it feels like to be guillotined.
He was in 1873 condemned to death for a crime of which he was innocent, and it was not the fault of Italian justice that he escaped. The blade of the guillotine fell, but the wood in the grooves of which it ran had swollen slightly, and the knife stopped barely two centimeters from his neck. While they were repairing this defect a reprieve arrived – the true murderer had been found and confessed his crime.
"It was 8 o'clock A.M., August 17, 1873," says M. Mondate, "that my confessor, l'Abbe Fernia, entered my cell to announce to me that I must die. When at the touch of his hand upon my shoulder I awakened, I comprehended at once the nature of his errand, and despite my confidence, it seems that I turned horribly pale. I would have spoken, but my mouth contracted nervously and no saliva moistened it. A mortal chill suddenly invaded the lower part of my body. By a supreme effort I succeeded in gasping, ‘It is not true!’ The priest answered I know not what. I only heard a confused buzzing.
“Then a sudden thrill of pride shot through me. For some minutes I felt no fear; I stood erect; I said to myself that if I must die I should show them that an innocent man died with courage. I spoke with great rapidity; I was horribly afraid to be silent or to be interrupted; I thanked the governor of the prison, and asked for something to eat. They brought me a cup of chocolate, but I refused it. Again I had become fully possessed with the horrors of my situation; I had visions of what the scaffold would be like, and mechanically asked the attendants, ‘Does it hurt much?’ ‘Not a bit,’ answered somebody, and I saw before me a new person in a gown of black woolen – the executioner.
“I would have risen, defended myself, asserted my innocence, but I fainted, and when I returned to consciousness I was pinioned in the cart which was entering the death place. I cast a shuddering look at the horrible machine. I had no more connected and coherent thought, and the uprights through which the knife runs seemed as high as the masts of a ship. I was lifted to the platform. I had but one fixed idea – that of resistance. But how could I resist? I was seized and flung down upon the plank. I felt as if I was paralyzed and lay there for an immense time. Then there was a sharp blow on my neck, and I fainted again with the instinctive idea that the knife had struck me. It was not the knife, but the upper part of the lunette. When I came to myself was in the prison hospital.”
Very distressing to read this brief, even 110 years after it appeared on the front page – the front page! – of the Minneapolis Tribune. Still, you have to wonder about the accuracy of the story. What 6-year-old (I'm guessing the subheadline got the age wrong) is capable of committing such a horrifying act?
FIVE-YEAR-OLD GIRL ROASTS LITTLE BROTHER WHILE MOTHER IS ABSENT.
LA CROSSE, WIs., Jan. 26 – While Mrs. Edward Smith was chopping wood yesterday her daughter 6 years old placed a baby brother in a hot oven, closed the door and baked the baby to death before the mother returned. The oven had been heated for baking.
Some mighty fine police work by a Minneapolis detective, as reported in the Tribune:
For three days Detective Wilson of the East Side Police station lay on a church pew in the gallery of the church of St. Anthony of Padua, Eighth avenue and Main street southeast, peeking between two prayer books he had braced against a pew in front of him.
|St. Anthony of Padua Church in about 1900. The towers were removed during a renovation in the late 1940s. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)|
Yesterday afternoon, after a score or more of worshipers in the church had left, a woman entered and went to the middle of the church. She lighted a candle, took off her shoes and tiptoed to the back of the church. Wilson and the sexton, who was keeping watch with the detective, said they saw her take a key from her pocketbook, unlock the box for contributions to the poor, take out the money and start back to get her shoes.
Wilson and the sexton hurried downstairs and arrested her as she was putting on her shoes. She had $1.44, which, they said, she had taken from the box. She gave her name as Alice Eastman. She lived in the University apartments, Fifteenth avenue and Fourth street southeast.
She told the police matron that she was poor and thought she had a right to the money in the box. This is the third time she has been arrested. Three years ago she was convicted of having broken into a desk in the First Baptist church. She was sent to the House of the Good Shepherd.
According to the police she was employed in the office of the board of education, marking examination papers of teachers. The rector of St. Anthony church reported to Captain Quealey that money had been missing from the poor box for several weeks.