Terre Haute site of three executions - two of them botched
By John Wright
History will record the execution of Timothy McVeigh not as a first for Terre Haute, but as a fourth.
McVeigh's final moments, however, will pass far unlike those of the first three condemned prisoners, hanged for their crimes in Terre Haute in 1844, 1861 and 1869.
These were all legal executions carried out by the citizens of Terre Haute after public trials for murder. The wheels of justice, however, flew the tracks when it came execution time. Two of the death sentences played out more like horror movies.
The executions were, to put it plainly, botched.
The first man executed was Henry Dias, 44, on July 5, 1844. Dias had killed a man north of Terre Haute by hitting him in the head with an ax.
It was a time in American history when executions were public spectacles, much the same as an important ball game today.
Thousands attended the hanging, arriving in the city from miles around in wagons, buggies, on horseback and foot, according to the city's biography in the book "Historically Speaking."
Civic leaders had picked Strawberry Hill, near Sixth and Seabury streets, as the site. The area was apparently selected because of its viewer-friendly terrain, Terre Haute historian Mike McCormick said.
"Downhill from Osborne [Street] to Hulman on Sixth was a natural amphitheater -- a place where people could view the event," McCormick said. Strawberry Hill also stood next to a picturesque area known as Hulman Park, McCormick said.
Sheriff William Ray assigned his deputy, Marvin Hickcox, to prepare the noose and place it around Dias' neck, according to the book account.
But when the trap sprung and Dias dropped, the noose slipped.
"Instead of dying instantly from a broken neck, he hanged until he strangled to death, making it a particularly memorable execution," according to the account.
Perhaps such foul-ups contributed to a change in sentiment about public executions.
Louis Masur, author of "Rites of Execution," notes a shift in the popular attitude toward public executions in the United States in the mid-1800s. Laws enacted in the Northeast and Midwest began to move executions behind walls.
In 1861, when Terre Haute hanged Lewis Bradford, its citizens did so behind a fence, so the gallows could not be viewed from the street. Bradford had murdered John L. Brooks by beating him over the head with the limb from a sugar tree, McCormick has reported.
Sheriff William H. Stewart built the gallows on the north side of the jail at Ohio Street.
"The 1874 atlas shows the jail was at Water and Ohio streets," near the Wabash River, Mc-Cormick said. Stewart selected the 12 witnesses. Two doctors, a minister, three reporters and an undertaker also watched.
The executioners had better luck with Bradford's hanging. The noose did not slip; Bradford dropped 3 feet and was pronounced dead 23 minutes later.
The Terre Haute Weekly Express newspaper reported the city's last legal execution on Dec. 24, 1869. Oliver Morgan was given the death penalty for shooting John Petri to death inside Petri's saloon, where Petri also lived, at 13th Street and Lafayette Avenue. The prosecutor charged Morgan with murder.
No one saw the shooting and Morgan pleaded self-defense. Still, Morgan received the death sentence for killing Petri, a prominent man about town.
"Petri had a downtown saloon near Fourth and Walnut before it burned, so he was well-known in the community, and his son was a cop," McCormick said. "It probably had a lot to do with the fact that his son was a cop that developed a lot of emotions."
Mere months after the trial, workers erected the gallows at Third and Walnut streets. The gallows consisted simply of four upright beams with a framework at the top that suspended the noose.
"An enclosure surrounded the witnesses to shut out the scene from the passers-by," the newspaper reported. But the curious climbed atop nearby roofs to watch.
Stewart, still the sheriff, again prepared a guest list for the hanging. The list of 26 citizens included 10 newspaper reporters, which, if they wrote anything like the Express reporters, spared little in treating their readers to the gory details.
And, there were plenty. The problem this time was not the knot, but something even more elementary.
The rope was too long.
The Express described the scene: Morgan was escorted to the scaffold, legs tied at the knees and black hood over his head.
For one last time, he maintained his innocence. "I killed the man but it was in self-defense," he insisted.
The death warrant was read, and Morgan's black hood adjusted.
"Morgan, prepare for death!" Stewart said.
"The trap was sprung and the guests were treated to more than they expected," the Express reported. Morgan dropped, but his feet hit the ground.
"Several men on the scaffold grabbed the rope and pulled the body from the ground while another man ran under the scaffold and seized the body, whether to lift it up or to add weight to pull it is not known," the Express reported.
Morgan did, nonetheless, die on the rope. His heart stopped beating after 13 minutes.
Terre Haute did not stand alone as a community with executions. The citizens of Rockville, for example, hanged a Terre Haute man in Parke County in 1842, McCormick said.
And legal public hangings continued in the United States until the last one in 1936 in Owensboro, Ky., before 20,000 spectators.
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