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Feb. 13, 1906: Minnesota’s last execution

  • Blog Post by: Ben Welter
  • May 1, 2014 - 11:37 AM

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.

Minnesota abolished the death penalty in 1911. For more on the Williams case, see “The Botched Hanging of William Williams,” The Rake, March 2004.

[Originally posted Sept. 24, 2006; reposting to add and update links, clean up the layout and reopen comments.]

Dispatch headline
The St. Paul Dispatch published its execution story under this headline on an inside page.

THIS IS MURDER;
I AM INNOCENT

- William Williams

Slayer of Johnny Keller Makes
Statement Before Being
Strangled to Death

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.

Execution graphic
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 Williams
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.

WILLIAMS QUIVERED.

For just a second Williams quivered. Then he looked death in the face and smiled.

Sheriff Miesen
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.

BODY SWAYED.

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.

Work of the moment
– 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.

Brain quote
– 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.

© 2014 Star Tribune