The Hangman’s Gallows in Cecil County

jail ticket hanging

A ticket to the 1905 execution. After the 1879 hanging, the sentences were carried out behind the jail house walls and only a small number of witnesses were admitted

Death sentences were carried out in the counties until 1923 when Maryland centralized executions in the state penitentiary. Consequently from the county’s founding in 1674 until the law changed, at least seven convicted murderers made the final walk to the gallows here in Cecil. The county’s executioner, the sheriff, got ready to perform the grizzly deed on the appointed day, as crowds gathered to witness the doomed convict’s final moments.

As many as 5,000 people watched some of the executions, but by 1893 when Alfred Stout was executed the law required the sheriff to execute death in as private a manner as possible.  So for the first time, the execution took place inside the jail yard.  The Baltimore Sun hoped that the Elkton hanging wouldn’t be a repetition of the turbulent scene which attended the recent hanging in Chesterton, in direct disregard of the law.  It was not for just his legal and spiritual advisers, law enforcement personnel, and a few other people stood inside the old jail house yard for the death watch.

The last public execution took place at the Alms House in Cherry Hill and Medford Waters was the doomed man.   Here is a description of the day a mile-long line of carriages made the trip from Elkton to Cherry Hill, and a crowd of between 1,000 to 1,500 assembled on the poor house property.

On the morning of December 5, 1879, Elkton was stirring at an early hour. It was to be a memorable day in town history for the resident were to be treated to a spectacle the likes of which they would never be permitted to witness again. A man was to forfeit his life on the gallows for the crime of murder and his execution was to be public. The central figure in the proceedings was an African-American youth named Medford Waters who was not yet 18 years old. He worked on a farm near Cecilton.

On November 25, 1878 he and another man were husking corn when a quarrel erupted between them. Waters got a pistol and fired two bullets into the other man, killing him instantly. He fled to Queen Anne’s County and after hiding for two nights was arrested by lawmen there and turned over to Sheriff William T. Boulden. Having been indicted for murder, his trail started on Jan 6, 1879. A verdict of murder in the first degree was returned.

Friday, Dec., 5th the date set for the execution having arrived, the Groome guards assembled at the armory at 8 a.m. and marched to the jail under command of Capt. Wm. G. Purnell who formed them in marching order to lead the procession to the Alms House, which had been selected as the place of execution. The gallows, with a platform eight feet from the ground, had been framed in Elkton the previous day.

At 10 o’clock the sheriff accompanied by the prisoner and two deputies, Eli W. Janney and John S. Cooling, came out of the jail and entered the carriage which was to convey them to the Alms House. A squad of soldiers led the procession, then came the officers and prisoners, followed by the remaining soldiers and a long line of carriages. The gallows was reach at 5 minutes after eleven, and the sheriff accompanied by the prisoner and Mr. Janney, who had some experience at an earlier execution and Mr. Cooling ascended the platform. Mr. John Perkins and the Rev. C. H. Williams also ascended the platform, where Mr. Williams at the request of the prisoner read the 15th chapter of the book of Revelations and Mr. Perkins offered a fervent prayer, and the entire audience joined in signing a hymn.

Waters then made a speech to the crowd, admonishing them to restrain their tempers and expressed the hope that none of them would come to an end like his. Mr. Perkins then sang another hymn to conclude the exercise. The prisoner asked the sheriff to lengthen the rope, which he did, and at 11:35 severed the cord and the drop fell.  The number of spectators was estimated at from 1,000 to 1,500.

The table below is a registry of identified capital punishment cases, prior to centralization.

capital punishment casers

Click here to go to article on 1905 execution, the last one carried out in Cecil County.

Last hanging at the old Elkton jail.


8 responses to “The Hangman’s Gallows in Cecil County

  1. This is fantastic!!!

  2. Thanks Patrick. The criminal justice posts that I put up seem to be the most popular. When I started the history blog about 18 mos ago, I wrote one about the whipping post. It’s still, usually, the number one read post on this site.

  3. Pingback: Maryland Life: Spectral Sightings at the Cecil County Jail: Ghosts of Prisoners Past | Window on Cecil County's Past

  4. charlie roach

    I enjoyed the history of the old jail in elkton. I worked for then sheriff jack dewitt for six years before moving onto the state in the late 70s. I always knew that the jail had history and must say that it should be part of the counties history. I was given one of the old jail keys used to open the jail cells by jack. It makes you wonder how many civil war veterans were housed in the jail since it was built in 1870.

  5. Thanks Charlie. Stop by the HIstorical Society sometime and take a look at our many additional photos and articles on the old jail. You’d find them of intererst. As for Civil War veterans in the old jail, there were a few that we are aware of. One spent almost the entire remainder of his life there and was institutionalized when he passed away. They’d moved him to the Almshouse at some point. Sometimes he’d escape and make his way to the White House to try to talk to President Grant. I thought I’d do a post on him sometime, as his story is particularly interesting.

  6. I’m curious if there is any relation to yesteryear’s law enforcement officers and those at the Sheriff’s Department today. Both Janney and Walmsley are familiar names in 2014.

  7. Also Wes McCallister too.

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