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.

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