Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Juneau, Nov. 10, 1939 - "My Last Hanging"

I'm not sure why this page popped up yesterday (Nov. 9) because it doesn't seem to be at all related to what I was googling.  But there it was.  And just in time to post it on the 71st anniversary of the grim event.  This is originally from an Anchorage Daily News story.  The man hanged  was Nelson Charles of Ketchikan.  (Weird English idiosyncrasies - the past tense of "to hang," meaning to kill someone by hanging him with a rope is 'hanged.'  The past tense of "to hang" meaning to hang something (like a picture) is 'hung.')
Here's an excerpt from the University of Alaska Justice Center website:  [It turns out the Justice Center post was put together by local blogger Mel Green.]
My Last Hanging—Thoughts on an Execution (Juneau, Nov. 10, 1939)  by John L. Gaffney

. . ."What did he say?" someone asked, leaning forward.
     "No talking after he comes out," I answered, and at least two others answered with me. Then we all fell silent. We looked at our watches; I put my wrist to my ear to hear the ticking. It was 17 minutes before 9 o'clock.
     I looked first at the trap, then at the pit. It looked a long way to the bottom, and so damp and dark, like a dungeon. He would fall four feet, they'd said. That was a long way, too.
     Now there was another sound outside the door. Two clergymen appeared and took their places on the platform, just a foot behind the trap.
     There were more sounds at the doorway. This would be it. First the marshal appeared, his arm holding someone else's arm, his body half-hiding another man. Then, slowly, ever so slowly, three of them were there: the marshal, a deputy, and between them a man — a Native — I had never seen before. He was the man.
     Then I learned I had been wrong about one thing: I'd decided he would not face us, but stand sideways; but it was not that way. He stood there, not more than 15 feet away, looking at us. He looked as we had expected, like the full-blooded Native he was. He wore blue serge trousers, black shoes, a white shirt, and a dark tie, well-knotted and in place. His hands and arms were bound tightly to his sides with canvas bands.
     Seconds ticked away. A few inches behind me, at my right side, water dripped and struck the boards. Like drops from a faucet: steadily, just so fast, no faster. The marshal shook out another long canvas strap and stooped to adjust it about the man's legs. As he finished his task, he stepped back a little.
     "Is there anything you'd like to say, Nelson?" he asked.
     We expected a brief negative nod of the dark head, but he spoke — his voice a half-sob — whispering, barely more: "I am innocent of killing my mother-in-law," he murmured. "I don't want to hang. I still say I am innocent."
     His head was bowed forward. You could feel if not see the hot tears in his eyes. You could feel his trembling in your own body.
     Had I any thought of a criminal about to pay for his crime? Any thought of a disreputable and dangerous killer about to give his life for the one he had taken? No — nothing like that. Only that a man was about to die. That there — almost within reach — was a man like ourselves. A young man. Who somewhere had a wife, had once slept an untroubled sleep, had only the day before laughed and hoped for life.
     I was aware as I sat there of some unusual feeling that was strange to me. It was vague then, with no time to fathom it. But now I know: It was the certainty, the sureness of it. I knew for the only time in my life that within minutes this man who now lived as I lived would be dead. A stone. Lifeless, cold and stiff. . . [emphasis added]  [for the whole piece go to the Justice Center link.]

From a different  UAA Justice Center page:
Nelson Charles was a 37-year-old Native fisherman and World War I veteran, married with a daughter. Newspaper accounts indicate that Charles was probably not an Alaska Native, but a Native American from the Puget Sound area. He was arrested and convicted for the September 4, 1938 murder of his mother-in-law, Cecilia Johnson, in Ketchikan. Both Charles and Johnson had been drinking heavily at the time of the murder. The Alaska Native Brotherhood petitioned President Franklin Roosevelt for a commutation of Charles' sentence to life imprisonment, but Roosevelt did not respond. Charles was hanged in Juneau on November 10, 1939 (Lerman 1994, 1998. For a full account of Charles' trial and hanging, see Lerman 1996; see also Gaffney 1995, which provides an eyewitness account of Charles' execution.)

Persons Executed under Civil Authority
in Alaska, 1900-present

Fred Hardy
Homer Bird
Mailo Segura
"John Doe" Hamilton
Constantine Beaver
Nelson Charles
Austin Nelson
Eugene LaMoore
Death penalty abolished in Alaska
Alaska statehood

We know that there were a lot more murders in that time in Alaska.  The chart and what follows are from the same Justice Center webpage:
After prolonged debate, the Alaska Territorial Legislature abolished capital punishment in 1957 in a briefly worded measure stating, "The death penalty is and shall hereafter be abolished as punishment in Alaska for the commission of any crime" (Lerman 1994). The abolition measure was sponsored by Warren Taylor and Vic Fischer. According to Vic Fischer, one factor motivating abolition was apparent racial bias in the application of the death penalty (Lerman 1994). A number of attempts have been made to reintroduce capital punishment to Alaska since 1957, but all so far have failed.
 So, back in 1957 Alaskans already understood that non-whites were more likely to get a death sentence than whites.  The rest of the country has only just been figuring that out.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Powerful stuff. Thank you for finding it and sharing it.


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