Death Penalty Banned in Illinois

Untold stories of hangings in Chicago from 1840 – 1927
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Gov. Quinn is expected to sign a bill that will abolish the death penalty in Illinois last week. Let’s take a brief look at the history of executions in Chicago, some (indeed, many) of which were fairly disastrous.

Chicago’s first execution was a public one, held on a portion of the south side that was nothing but dunes at the time. The hangman was “Black George” (who the town crier and the winning bidder at the city’s first slave auction) and the condemned was on John Stone. He insisted that he was innocent, but admitted that he’d killed a few other people. Such was the world in the 1840s.

A few more public executions were held on what is now Ashland Street between Polk and Taylor (driving over a pothole on that spot is an odd experience). Public executions were banned in Illinois in 1859, though on some occasions an awful lot of people – as many as 1500 for the “trunk murderers in the 1880s – were crowded into the jail to see the spectacle.

Over the years before the state switched the chair in 1927, roughly 100 men were hanged in Chicago alone. Five were hanged in one day in 1912.

There were a number of disasters. On two occasions that I know of, the rope broke. The first time, the man fell several feet to the floor and landed on his head. When asked if he could stand, he was in a bit of a daze and didn’t exactly understand the question. “I can stand twice that,” he said. He was brought up to be hanged again. The next time, the man cracked his head open and bled so badly that they were pretty sure the man was dead, but the sentence called for him to be hanged by his neck until dead, so they had to re-attach a noose and slide the limp body down the trap door.

There were other times when things got ugly. A couple of men had to be hanged while tied to chairs (though one supposedly arranged to be hang that way to lower the chances of his neck breaking so that he could be brought back to life). He wasn’t the first to undergo an attempted revival – the body of James Tracy was cut down and pumped with electricity right away to see if he could be revived (in order to prove that hangings weren’t effectively killing people).

Some men, it could be argued, wouldn’t have been hanged if they’d had better lawyers. Patrick Pendergast, the man who assassinated Mayor Harrison, was clearly insane – the jail physician felt that he was schizophrenic, and it’s fairly obvious in interviews. Had he killed anyone other than the mayor, he would probably have been committed, not executed. Through the annals of Chicago crime, one finds that some men were executed for committing a crime, and others were merely given jail sentences for the same crime. The Haymarket anarchists were executed mainly for being anarchists – certainly all four of them (five, counting Louis Lling, who killed himself before they could hang him) couldn’t have thrown the bomb. Most men who had killed more than once were hanged, but not all. And no female murderer was ever hanged in Chicago (though we sure had a few of those).

And the system never has really improved. The death penalty is being outlawed tomorrow not for moral reasons against capital punishment, but for the fact that the studies showed the system to be subject to a great deal of error, bias, and incompetence. That situation will probably never improve. Writing FATAL DROP was a harrowing experience, and, though I was never crazy about it to begin with, I found it impossible to support the death penalty after writing it.

If you want to go to an appropriate location tomorrow to mark the occasion, the gallows were generally set up where the garages of the fire station at Illinois and Dearborn is now. There was a jail there at the time. And if you’re going to protest, it won’t be the first time such things have happened there. Before the jail was built, it was a market square. Senator Douglas made a speech there promoting the Kansas Nebraska act (which would have allowed slavery to spread) and got pelted with vegetables.

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