November-December 2009

Last Man Hanging

Until the 1920s, justice was administered locally at the end of a rope.

Coiled on a shelf among the artifacts of the Montgomery County Historical Society in Rockville is a length of worn manila rope, ordinary in appearance, yet forever tied to an ignoble chapter in local history: It is the rope used in 1921 for the last hanging in Montgomery County.

Capital punishment has been a part of Maryland’s heritage since 1638, when, four years after the colony’s founding, Thomas Smith and Edward Beckler were convicted of piracy and hanged before a curious public at St. Mary’s City. Almost a half century later, the first woman would be executed in Maryland, Rebecca Fowler, who,“having not the fear of God before her eyes, but being led by the instigation of the Devil,” was hanged for witchcraft in 1685 at the courthouse in Calvert County.

Colonial penal laws were harsh. The Maryland General Assembly decreed that anyone who committed manslaughter, burned down a house or even torched a stack of corn or tobacco could be sentenced to death by hanging. Eventually, more than 200 crimes would be punishable by death. The condemned were to be executed in the county where convicted. After the creation of Montgomery County in 1776, all hangings took place in the yard of the county jail at the Rockville courthouse, in the center of town near the site of the current courthouse complex. One of the earliest occurred in 1817, when Jacob, a “negro man servant,” was sentenced to die for the murder of his master, John O’Neale.

The procedure was standard. Gallows would be specially built for each hanging, at first in the open, allowing any interested town folk to witness the hanging. However, because the spectacle often incited an unruly mob, the hangings were eventually moved into an enclosed area off the jail, with a high stone wall blocking the view. Only about 30 citizens would then be invited to the execution.

As the gallows were constructed, the rope to be used was soaked with water, then stretched while drying, making the rope a little stiffer so it would hang straight and eliminating any possible recoil. The hangman’s knot was treated with soap or oil to ensure the rope slid smoothly. The inmate was escorted to the gallows in restraints, placed standing over a hinged trapdoor, the noose put around the neck, and a black bag pulled over the head. Then the trapdoor sprung open. Convicts rarely died instantaneously from a broken neck; most often death resulted from slow asphyxiation.

Few men swung from the gallows at the Rockville yard before the Civil War. After an 1851 execution, none occurred over the next 42 years. Then, in 1893, William Bond, a farmhand,was sent to the gallows for the rape and murder of Margaret Cephas, attacked as she walked along the road leading from Unity to Etchison in northern Montgomery County. The Washington Post described the horrific scene. As the noose was placed around his neck, Bond reeled and almost fell from fright. “Someone shouted, ‘Hold him, hold him,’” the Post reported. “One man pulled the rope tight to steady him and two others put hands on his shoulders.” The trapdoor crashed open and Bond swung “like a top, and sickening gasps, the struggle for breath were heard.” After seven minutes, he was pronounced dead.

Perhaps the most infamous hangings in Rockville were those of Armstead Taylor and John Humphrey Brown, who in 1899 dropped together for the murders of Dora and Louis Rosenstein, “an inoffensive Hebrew couple,” the Post noted, “who kept a little store at Slidell,” a small crossroads town in the northwestern section of the county. The two were brutally beaten during a robbery. The executions were horrendously botched; the knots failed to slip tight and struck both men in the face. Their eventual strangulations were due to their own “convulsive writhings and spasmodic jerkings.” Clergymen attending the execution shouted at the county sheriff that the hanging was an “outrage and a bungle.” The bodies hung for 35 minutes before being cut down.

The last man executed in Montgomery County—the man who dangled from the historical society’s rope—was Guy Vernon Thompson, a painter from Germantown who in 1921 was convicted of dynamiting the cabin of James Bolton in a remote section near Germantown, killing Bolton and the two young children of his housekeeper. Bolton had earlier shot Thompson in the neck, the result of “a quarrel on election day,” according to a Post report. Thompson later suspected that Bolton was having an affair with his wife, and he exacted his revenge late one night by blowing the house to pieces with sticks of dynamite.

After the death sentence was handed down, Thompson was removed to Baltimore for safekeeping until the day of execution, not from fear of mob violence— although two days after the tragedy reports were heard of masked vigilantes ready to lynch Thompson for his heinous act—but because of the lack of security at the Rockville jail, from which a number of prisoners had escaped.

The year after Thompson’s execution, the Maryland legislature sought to address the problem of “the curious mobs that frequent hangings taking place in the counties of this State, and who attempt to make public affairs of the same.” The solution was to centralize all hangings within the walls of the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore. Over the next 33 years, 75 men would step onto the gallows, with 12 double and two triple hangings taking place. H.L. Mencken, the noted Baltimore author and journalist, witnessed nine hangings, including the 1926 execution of Richard Reese Whittemore, alias “The Candy Kid,” a gangster of some renown who killed a prison guard during an escape from the pen. “Hanging one scoundrel, it appears, does not deter the next,” Mencken later commented. “Well, what of it? The first one is at least disposed of.”

Hanging remained the method of execution in Maryland until 1955, when the legislature, concerned over continuing reports of horrendous outcomes, instituted the gas chamber. Thirty-eight years later, lethal injection would become the primary method of execution. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled that any form of capital punishment could be considered “cruel and unusual” and therefore unconstitutional. That ruling would be reversed in 1976, and since its reinstatement, five men have been executed in Maryland, the most recent in 2005.

Mark Walston is an author and historian raised in Bethesda and now living in Olney.