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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.
This photo by Jack Gillis of the Minneapolis Star sat in a steel cabinet in the Star Tribune library for more than 50 years, along with thousands of other images rarely used a second time. I ran across it in a search of our new digital photo archive. The photo appeared on the Teen Topper page, accompanied by the caption below. As was typical of the era, the caption provided readers with the name, age and home address of each of the young women. You’d think that would make it easy to track down Gail Wittels, the Rockette with the broken leg. But all I can find is a document suggesting that she went to college and earned a graduate degree in economics at the University of California. After that the thin trail evaporates. If you know her, or any of these fine-looking young ladies, post a comment or drop me a line. I’d also love to hear more about the Roosevelt Rockettes. The group was established in 1951 and led “a lively existence through succeeding student generations,” according to a 1967 photo caption. They made their own costumes and did most of their own choreography. Impressive!
|When Gail Wittels, 16, 5537 Woodlawn Blvd., shows up for rehearsal of Roosevelt High School Rockettes, she doesn't put her best foot forward -- she puts her game leg forward (right). Out skiing on the season's multistratous snow, Gail suffered a spiral fracture of her right leg. Consequently, she will be on the sidelines when the dance troupe appears at the school's talent show next Friday in the school auditorium. She also will miss the spring fashion show April 5, also at the school. The fashion show will be a salute to spring, with students, parents and members of the school staff serving as models. A quartet, the "Teddy Tones," will present song fashions. Rockettes (above, from left) are Dawn Peterson, 15, 4213 18th Av. S.; Pam Filmore, 16, 3940 17th Av. S.; Kathy Nelson, 17, 3120 Wenonah Place; Mary Keohane, 17, 5156 30th Av. S.; Lynn Scheele, 16, 4252 Nokomis Av.; Joan Johnson, 17, 5429 31st Av. S.; Kay Kwakenat, 16, 5337 Nokomis Av.; Nora Monahan, 17, 4916 Aldrich Av. S.; Diane Franzen, 17, 4104 20th Av. S.; Lani Greenfield, 17, 3916 29th Av. S.; Jacquie Spence, 15, 4933 Nokomis Av.; Mary Jo Kunz, 16, 5256 45th Av. S., and Gail cheerfully resting her weight on her good leg. [Pictured separately were Pam Anderson, 18, 3900 18th Av. S.; Karin Wakefield, 17, 4151 24th Av. S.; Frances Malmsten, 17, 4740 17th Av. S., and Jerilyn Johnson, 18, 3504 43rd Av. S.]|
Have you read "Canoeing With the Cree," Eric Sevareid's engaging account of his 1930 canoe trip from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay? Sevareid, 17, and a 19-year-old friend paddled more than 2,200 miles that summer. They caught fish, shot rapids, ate pemmican. They mingled with Indians and slept under the stars.
A few decades earlier, another 17-year-old boy from Minneapolis set out on a canoe adventure that was nearly as ambitious and just as likely to inspire others to pack up a canoe and head north. Bruce Steelman submitted this account to the Minneapolis Tribune:
|Bruce Steelman intended to take photos, but his camera got soaked early in the trip. Thank goodness the Minnesota Historical Society has scores of images from that time and place. Here, an Ojibwe family paddled Lake Vermilion, the starting point of Steelman's 1,100-mile journey. (Image courtesy mnhs.org)|
Three Boys Cover 1,100 Miles on Lakes and Rivers in Five-Week Trip.
Range Waters and Rainy River Country Explored – Rare Experiences.
They Come Down Mississippi From Bemidji – Outing to Be Repeated.
Bruce C. Steelman, 119 Thirty-third street west, his brother, Clyde, and Loyd Sherman have returned to Minneapolis after a canoe trip of 1,100 miles on the lakes and rivers of northern Minnesota. Some of the places visited have seldom been visited by white men. The boys plan to repeat the trip some time.
Bruce Steelman tells the story of the voyage as follows:
“Loyd Sherman, my brother, Clyde, and myself had long planned to take a canoe trip. We shipped out two canoes and supplies to Tower, Minn., on July 16. We stocked up with bacon, salt pork, navy beans, flour, corn meal, rice and everything that generally goes with a camping outfit. We started from Minneapolis, where we all live.
“We arrived at Tower at 11 a.m. the next day. Early in the afternoon we launched our canoes and pushed out from shore in Vermillion [correct spelling: Vermilion] lake. Crossing the lake we entered the river of the same name and passed through Crane lake, Sand Point lake, Namekan lake and some smaller bodies.
“At the outlet of the Vermillion river we pitched our tepee. The owner of Hunters’ lodge there advised us to ship one of our canoes back, because there were many portages to make, but we went on with the two canoes.
“The first day out from there we made five portages. One of the canoes got away from us and was swept down the rapids. It turned partly over and filled with water. We lost all our ammunition, part of our clothing and some of our grub. Loyd rand down stream and headed off the canoe, jumped into the stream and towed it to shore. Our camera was soaked and this prevented us from taking many pictures along our trip as we had intended doing.
“At this point we decided that one canoe was plenty and were sorry we had not followed the advice of the man at Hunters’ lodge. The next morning Loyd and I started back with the smaller canoe to the foot of Vermillion lake and shipped it back home.
“My brother was to go down stream a little farther with the large canoe and the supplies to a small creek. Though we had never been there we thought we could easily find him. After getting the canoe off our hands we started back overland to join Clyde. We found the creek, but Clyde was not there. As we had spoken of no other meeting place we did not know what to do. We made a search of the surroundings and found an old boat, which we got into and went back to our camping place of the night before. He was not there. Night was coming on and we had nothing to eat with us and no gun. In the meantime a strong wind came up and a heavy shower, which drenched us to the skin in a few moments.
Had No Dry Matches.
“We had no matches that were dry and we could not start a fire. It was now dark. We groped around and found a windfall, pulled off some boughs, made a bed and remained there all night. At the break of day we got out and started back in the boat. The morning was bright and the warm sun felt good to us. We had not gone far when we saw three moose only a few yards away. They trotted off briskly.
“After a search of a couple of hours we found Clyde and the supplies. We were more anxious to find the latter than the former, for our appetites were pretty keen. The waves had driven Clyde ashore and we had passed him.
“In a few days we had reached the Rainy Lake river, after making about 18 portages, two of which were over a mile long.
“Up to this time we had caught wall-eyed pike weighing up to seven pounds and plenty of northern pike. We had also seen a number of deer.
“At our first camping place on the Rainy Lake river we were besieged with timber wolves. We kept up a pretty high camp fire and they kept their distance, but hung around most of the night. When daylight came they had disappeared and we saw nothing more of them.
“We saw many Indians along our trip, but as they could not talk English they could not benefit us much. They have some fine birch bark canoes which we could have bought for from $3 to $10.
“We started up the Rainy lakes and could not make over about seven miles a day, as it was showery for about three weeks. We had to use our compasses, for we could not tell the islands from the mainland. Part of the time we camped on the Canadian side. Some nights we camped on islands when we thought we were on the mainland. Moose seemed plentiful on the international boundary. Fishing was most excellent.
|The Mississippi River below Lake Bemidji in about 1910. (Image courtesy mnhs.org)|
“The trip through the lakes was very interesting as the shores are very rocky and covered with timber. There are scarcely any white men up there, but Indians are everywhere to be found. We traveled by moonlight a great deal, for the nights were calm while the waves rolled nearly every day. We lost our way many times on these lakes and were several days reaching International Falls, where we camped for a few days.
“We shipped our canoe and luggage to Bemidji, Minn. Here we launched our canoe in Bemidji lake, the outlet of which flows into Cass lake, and after passing this lake we went down the river to Lake Winnibigoshish. The Mississippi is so shallow up there that we were aground every little while and we had to work like galley slaves to get along.
“From Bemidji to Minneapolis by the river it is over 500 miles. We found but few whites along the river clear down to Aitkin.
"We were almost out of supplies and could get but little from the Indians. When we were almost ready to land at home we came very near losing our whole outfit in a log jam. We landed Friday evening at the Union station, Minneapolis, at 7 o'clock. All we had left of our provisions was salt and pepper and a little rice.
"The trip cost us about $40 apiece, not counting our experience."
|Cooling off in Cass Lake in about 1910: Steelman didn't report seeing any bathing beauties like these while crossing the big lake. (Image courtesy mnhs.org)|
Complaints about airport noise date back further than you might have guessed. Here a Minneapolis Tribune reader registered his displeasure with the “inconsiderate pilots” of low-flying planes.
To the Editor: Of all the candidates for political office, none has asserted himself as to the low-flying plane nuisance in south Minneapolis.
Again this summer inconsiderate pilots of sightseeing planes use the city airport at a very nominal expense to fly passengers. Many times we hear motors stalling and sputtering, while we notice the pilot attempting to glide his plane back to the airport. One plane had forced landings last summer so often that it finally landed in a cemetery.
When I speak of this nuisance I do not mean in the immediate vicinity of the airport. I mean all the district north of Fiftieth street and beyond Franklin avenue.
Improper observance of the city ordinances in respect to low-flying planes has reduced property values in south Minneapolis by $500 to $3,000 during the summer months. If you question that statement, try selling your property in summer. This loss of real estate value is a loss of taxes as well.
JOHN REIHERZER, Minneapolis
|This Grumman amphibious airplane, parked at the Naval Reserve Air Base at Wold-Chamberlain Field in October 1940, looks mighty noisy. Wold-Chamberlain, named after two local pilots killed in combat during World War I, was renamed Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in 1948. (Minneapolis Times photo)|
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?|