Photographing an Execution

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A ticket to the last hanging, signed by Sheriff Biddle

Mounted on the wall in Sheriff John F. DeWitt’s office in the antiquated 19th century Cecil County jail were two photographs he proudly displayed and discussed. When someone first visited the county’s top lawman, in the space that was full of career related memorabilia, he often directed the visitor’s gaze to these images.

Those old pictures from long ago showed a young man, 23, spending his last minutes on earth in the Elkton jailhouse yard. In those days, the local lockup, the equivalent of Maryland’s Death Row in that time, was the place where felons were executed, the gruesome task falling to the local sheriff.

Jack particularly enjoyed sharing the narrative about those moments permanently frozen in time with fresh journalists, who stopped by his office for some reason or another. Impressionable teenagers, especially troubled ones, were targets too, getting the full treatment.  And he would use the images while extolling his criminal justice philosophies to any curious types. He was ten steps to the right of Attilla the Hun (or something along that line) was one of the things he would squeeze in.  Of course, he was a strong supporter of the death penalty.

Convicted of the murder of Judge Albert Constable, John M. Simpers, spent his final days in  cell two on the second floor of what had become known in the 1970s as the “DeWitt Hotel.”  It was the same one occupied by Truss, Cooper, and Stout. as they awaited their fate on Cecil’s death row, years earlier.

Minutes before 10:00 a.m. on October 20, 1905, Sheriff George C. Biddle and Deputy J. Wesley McAllister entered the cell, which had been under a constant around-the-clock death watch for days, to escort the doomed man outside.  Harry Moore had acted as the day watch over Simpers, while Sheriff Biddle and Deputy McAllister divided the long night hours. 

In the yard, the convict ascended the gallows, with the two lawmen at his side.  All the gruesome equipment was ready for this day, the one designated in the death warrant.  The Scaffold had been completed and tested earlier in the week by contractor Calvin Merritt, who had built “each death machine” that had been “used in executions in Cecil County for the past thirty-five years,” the Cecil Democrat observed.  The black cap used to mask the face was made by Charles Purnell and the rope was supplied by Fisher Bros., of Philadelphia.

A photographer permanently captured this autumn scene in a series of shots up to the point where Sheriff Biddle picked up a hatchet and cut the rope, causing the death trap to spring open and the body to shoot downward. The Washington Post described what the camera didn’t capture: “like a flash the body of the murderer shot downward, swayed back and forth, turned around, and then became still. In twelve minutes the jail physician pronounced Simpers dead.”

Until 1879 legal executions had been public spectacles, drawing large, frenzied crowds as people gathered to watch convicts die. But a new state law stopped this and the last previous one before this took place in the yard at the jail in 1893.

The Simpers execution in 1905 was conducted in the presence of about 35 people and not more than a hundred gathered outside the granite wall while the hangman discharged his disagreeable duty.  But two outsiders got a view of it, perched in the topmost branches of trees in front of the jail. “People pressed through the yard after the body was born out and viewed the gallows, but few obtained, few if any souvenirs of the gruesome event,” the Appeal wrote.

The body remained “suspended until about 10:30 when the noose was loosened and lifted and the corpse was placed in a temporary box which was borne through the jail yard gate to the waiting wagon of Undertaker Clark S. Grant of Cherry Hill, according to the Elkton Appeal. He removed it to his premises in that village and interment took place in a more corner of the county burial ground, the Potter’s Field.

A photographer was there to capture those last minutes in a series of pictures.  Jack had two of them in his office, and many other local people have copies of  shots showing the moments leading up to the cutting of the rope.

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Sheriff DeWitt in his office in the old jail, sometime in the 1970s. One of the photos of the last hanging is on the wall behind him.  This picture was taken by the library to promote reading.  You will notice that he is holding “Crime and Justice.”

There are a number of these around the community, including the ones in the Sheriff’s office.  When examining them, look carefully for differences as a number were snapped, recording those rapidly passing seconds.  When the “black cap was drawn over his face to shut out earthly sights before the fatal plunge,” seems to be when the photographer stopped snapping photos. Or perhaps those final images were kept close and never circulated beyond the criminal justice system.

These two were given to me by the Sheriff sometime back in the 1970s. I also remember Mr. Dan Henry an elderly deputy  saying that he was one of the kids in the tree.

At this point, I don’t know who the photographer was, but given that we know the names of individuals in this trade in the county seat, we should be able to figure that out. I will update this once I examine the business directories.

Other executions were photographed around the nation in this era, as a Google search will show.

Two of the series of photographs of the last execution in Cecil County.  This is a copy of one that Sheriff DeWitt had in his office.

Two of the series of photographs of the last execution in Cecil County. This is a copy of one that Sheriff DeWitt had in his office.

Two of the series of photographs of the last execution in Cecil County.  This is a copy of one that Sheriff DeWitt had in his office.

Two of the series of photographs of the last execution in Cecil County. The black cap is getting ready to be pulled over the convict’s head before the rope is cut. This is a copy of one that Sheriff DeWitt had in his office.

CAB Accident Investigation Reports for Eastern and Pan American Airlines Crashes in Cecil County Available Online

CAB Investigation Report for Eastern Airlines Crash in 1947 near Bainbridge, MD.

CAB Investigation Report for Eastern Airlines Crash in 1947 near Bainbridge, MD.

The National Transportation Library of the Department of Transportation has digitized numerous collections, in order to provide easy access for DOT library customers and researchers. In that array of helpful research materials are the investigations of aircraft accidents, 1934 – 1965, the investigations of railroad accidents, 1911 – 1993, and much more. Here is the link to the DOT library’s digital collections.

Of particular interest to researchers in Cecil County are two commercial airplane accidents. One involving an Eastern Air Lines Flight took place near Bainbridge Naval Training Center May 30, 1947.  The other involving Pan American World Airways took place at the edge of Elkton December 8, 1963.

We had previously linked to those materials at the digital library but since readers often report trouble with the links, we are providing copies of the official Civil Aeronatics Board investigations here.

Here is th elink to the 197 Bainbridge Crash.

Here is the link to the 1963 Pan Americn Airlines Crash.

Singerly Listening Station Continues: An Interview With Chief John Turnbull (retired).

Recording Chief Turnbull's stories.

Recording Chief Turnbull’s stories.

The Singerly Listening Station was open on July 12, 2014, and many of the most senior members of the fire department stopped by the company museum to share stories about serving the community decades ago.  In this session we listened to past Chief John Turnbull talk about joining the ranks in 1963, some of the unforgettable incidents he was involved in, his time in charge of the department, and the changes he has seen.

Thank you Chief Turnbull for your service and for helping document the Singerly Story.  This is a brief outtake of about 11 minutes, from a much longer interview. The longer recordings will be archived for research purposes, while we are streaming this segment.

Fifteen members participated in this initial oral history session, and we will be sharing more of those installments in the weeks ahead.  We will also be doing  additional interviews as we finish processing this initial batch of material.

Past Chiefs, John Turnbull (right) and  Rodney Founds at the Station 13 dedication in 2013.

Past Chiefs, John Turnbull (right) and Rodney Founds at the Station 13 dedication in 2013.



Singerly Junior Officer Recalls Fire Company Working a Presidential Detail

2014-07-24 09.20.31arElkton, July 24, 2014 — Today a veteran firefighter, Leroy Hampton Scott, III (Scotty) sat down to help fill in Singerly Fire Company’s past at the department’s listening station. With over a half-a-century under his belt, Scotty shared stories that are part of a structured initiative called the Singerly Listening Station, an oral history project that is documenting the public safety agency’s heritage and honoring the memories of those who served.

The teenager joined the ranks as a rookie in 1958.  After that, he contributed countless hours to the service, fighting blazes, hanging onto the back of rushing fire engines, doing fundraising, and helping keep the organization running. He reached the rank of deputy chief before retiring from active duty.

Scotty had many recollections, but some stood out more than others for him. When the senior volunteer was asked about an extraordinary thing etched in his memory, he quickly mentioned an event that took place 51 years ago this autumn, something he still vividly recalls.

“The things you got to do, but you’ll never get a chance to do again,” he explained. “As near as I am to you [about 5-feet away),” he motioned with a sweeping hand gesture, “I was that close to the president.”  The Singerly junior officer was part of a November 14, 1963, detail, helping protect President Kennedy during his 62-minute visit to dedicate the new interstate highway.

Long before the chief executive touched down on Cecil County soil, security, crowd control, and safety arrangements had carefully been pinned down. Elite secret service men guarded JFK, Maryland and Delaware State Police established secure perimeters, and the fire department stood by at the landing site.

When Marine 1 came into view, newspapers estimated that there were 5,000 people on the Mason Dixon Line. That helicopter eased down to the ground, bringing the nation’s leader to the famous old Line where a speaker’s stand was set up for the ceremony. The Delaware National Guard “played Hail to the Chief,” while the president walked to the stand to offer remarks.

The large, enthusiastic crowd greeted the energetic leader warmly on that memorable day in mid-autumn. As JFK, the governors and other dignitaries delivered speeches, an engine and rescue truck stood by, in case they were needed. “I recall that Aetna Hose Hook and Ladder of Newark, Delaware was there too since it was on the state line and I believe we had an ambulance,” he noted.

“We were right up front. They wanted us nearby in case something happened, as it did eight days later.”  Chief Edgar (Spec) Slaughter commanded the operation that day and “I was on 27, the old rescue. The rescue got placed closer in,” Scotty recalled.

After snipping the ribbon and unveiling a marker on the state line, the president shook hands while returning to the helicopter. At the door of the craft he waved to the crowd before disappearing inside. “While the bird faded into the eastern horizon, the area was bathed in a dramatic sunset as people headed back to their cars on this chilly Thursday afternoon,” the Morning News reported.

Scotty was also a rural mail carrier in 1963, and when he came back to the post office on November 22, 1963, he learned about the death of the president. Practically everyone in Cecil County recalled that it was only eight days earlier that the president had visited Cecil to open the Northeastern Express, which was soon renamed the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway.

While many here had seen John F. Kennedy on that historic day, Scotty’s work as a volunteer firefighter had allowed him to see the energetic, youthful man up close and that made the entire sequence of events “mean that much more to me,” he concluded.

While most people settled down to listen to news flashes out of Dallas and to deal with the shock, Scotty wasn’t done.   “I also worked with my dad in construction, after finishing the mail. We had just poured concrete at the First National Bank of North East. I had to stay and finish the concrete and everybody in the world was coming by to tell us what had happened.

This was just one of Scotty’s many stories, a moment when a volunteer fire department assignment brought him to the dedication of the new expressway, where he stood feet away from the President of the United States.  His encounter with Kennedy was thrilling and was something he shared 51 years later.  Since it is a unique Singerly story we decided to share it now. A video summary of Scotty’s full interview will be posted in the next few weeks.


Residents hold signs greeting President Kennedy.

Residents hold signs greeting President Kennedy. Source: Historical Society of Cecil County


Hampton Scott at Sta. 13

Hampton Scott at Sta. 13

Singerly Listening Station Opens as Senior Fire Service Members Share Memories

Singerly Fire Company officially kicked off an oral history initiative, the Singerly Listening Station, on July 12, 2014.  Part of a larger process that is preserving and documenting the history of the department, the recordings will be archived in the company museum.  Longer, raw footage is retained for research and future use.  A shorter edited video production of about 10 minutes will feature highlights from each interview.

For the first session, fifteen of the most senior members gathered to reminisce and share memories, speaking from first hand knowledge and experiences.

In this interview, a past president and assistant chief, Walt Morgan, shares the story about over a half-century of volunteer service, having joined in 1961.

Look for additional screenings of interviews in the weeks ahead, as we archive and edit over 9 hours of recordings.

This is an ongoing process and a data collection strategy has been devised. The company started with the oldest members and in the months ahead more interviews will be done. In addition as command officers (administrative and line) retire from positions, they will be interviewed.

As we continue our work, here is Walt sharing the narrative about over a half-century of volunteer service in Elkton and Cecil County.



Video Overview Demonstrates Use of Helpful Cecil County Government Product, Cecil Maps

Cecil County’s GIS Map is a helpful product for family and local history research, as well as everyday use.  This video provides a brief overview of some of the system’s capabilities and demonstrates some of the navigation options.

Link to article on Cecil Maps

Link to Cecil Maps

Large Collection of Topographic Maps of Harford & Cecil County Available on USGS Historical Map Explorer

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Esri, a geographic information technology company, have partnered to make the enormous collection of the Survey’s map readily available to everyone. While these resources have been downloadable on the Internet since September 2011, this new, user-friendly website is a significant improvement over the original system, which was more complicated.

The explorer brings to life more than 178,000 maps from 1884 to 2006, allowing users to easily access geo-referenced images, which can also be used in web mapping applications. The timeline allows visitors to easily explore the collection by place, time, and scale, and the sheets are easily downloaded.

Use of the landing page is simple. Visitors enter the desired location in a query box, and once you click on the map a convenient timeline comes up, showing the survey for that place. The user is able to visual see the products that were produced over time and move along the line to see the changes over time.

Check this out, as you will find lots to help with your local and family history research,

Click here to go to the map explorer.

Darlington in 1950, after the construction of the Conowingo Dam.

Darlington in 1950, after the construction of the Conowingo Dam.

The Darlington area before the Dam in 1900.  You are able to zoom in and download these products.  Note the timeline at the bottom showing the available products.

The Darlington area before the Dam in 1900. You are able to zoom in and download these products. Note the timeline at the bottom showing the available products.

The modern edition base map is used to locate your point of interest.

The modern edition base map is used to locate your point of interest.