Monday, September 21, 2009

Schuylkill County Hangings

The Scaffold that hanged 8 men


In the course of history Schuylkill County has had numerous encounters with the gallows.
Actually the county has executed 16 individuals up to 1911 then the State of Pennsylvania took over all executions . The executions in the county included 9 of the famed Mollie Maguire’s.

The Hangings in Schuylkill County

The first Court House was erected in Schuylkill County in 1815 in the borough of Orwigsburg.
The first jail erected in Schuylkill County was at Orwigsburg, built in 1814 by Jacob, George, and Peter Kutz. It was made of field stone, about thirty two feet square and two stories in height. By a subsequent addition its length was made some seventy feet or eighty feet. It was later converted into a school house.
The first murder date (unknown) was committed by a man named Zimmerman, who killed his daughter with an axe because of a trifling misunderstanding-she refused to make his meals. He was tried and convicted of murder in the first degree. There was to be a public hanging. The gallows was erected at the crossroads (since called gallows hill) north of Orwigsburg, where the Borough Community building now stands. However Zimmerman was not executed as he met his death at the hands of a fellow prisoner who struck hum on the head with a heavy broom.
The second murder in the county was done by a man by the name of James Riggs, who killed a man named Gunder. The crime occurred in August of 1847.Riggs a black man was tried and convicted and was hanged in the Orwigsburg Jail yard. Riggs was the 27th person hung in Pennsylvania to the date of August 13, 1846.
It seems Jimmy Riggs was a victim of circumstances. It is a well known fact that there were plenty f murders committed in Schuylkill County from when it was organized in 1811 and up to the day Riggs was executed on August 13, 1847. But only Jimmy Riggs swung on the gallows in the first 63 years of the counties history.
Unfortunately for Jimmy he was hung for a crime that in every prospect a later day jury would have found his plea for self defense a legitimate. Actually the man he killed was himself a murderer who served a nine year sentence in the Pennsylvania Penitentiary for killing a man in New Philadelphia. He was later pardoned by then Governor David R. Porter.
There is really not a lot of information on the Riggs case, in the August 22, 1846 Weekly Miners Journal an article appeared that described the murder.
It said merely that on the night of Wednesday last a German named Gunder was shot by a Negro named Riggs at Ravendale. It stated that Gunder, a desperate character, had made threats and demonstrations against Riggs, and that the latter shot him in self defense.
Riggs went on trial on March 1, 1847, and in the Saturday edition of the Journal it noted that “The court yesterday was engaged in trying Riggs, a colored man, for shooting a Mr. Gunder a few months since in Norwegian Township. The paper also had a little article about two other murderers neither of whom hung…Dennis Burke, charged with killing Luke Brennan at New Philadelphia, a bill ignored, and Martin Shay, for killing Reese, A true Bill.
BY the time the trial was over on March 7th the defense council for Jimmy Riggs had made the most out his plea of self defense. Apparently Riggs and Gunder had difficulties in regard to a house, just what the difficulties were the newspaper failed to report.
There were threats on both sides, Riggs swore out a warrant for surety against Gunder but couldn’t get anyone to serve it.
Jimmy then said he’s have to defend himself. He returned home, took his gun and went to Gunders House, and found him standing in the door, he placed the gun near his head and shot him dead on the spot in the presence of his wife. So the Journal reported.
Riggs attorneys were James Campbell, Ben Bartholomew, and J.K. Clement, they argued that Gunder’s threats operated on Riggs mind to such an extent that he considered himself justifiable in thus acting in Self defense.
Jimmy Riggs addressed the Judge Luther Kidder and declared he believed his life was in danger and that he acted in self defense. He pointed out the helpless state of his wife and children and hoped that as much time would be allowed him as consistently could be.
Judge Kidder was merciless to Jimmy and immediately sentenced him to death and commented that “Your unfortunate situation excites our deepest sympathy and fills us with unutterable anguish, but you were fatally bent on mischief.”
One day while sitting in the prison two fellow prisoners of Riggs’ overpowered the sheriff when he opened one of the doors and they dashed into the street. Jimmy in cell found that the wall of the prison had broken open and also fled the jail. He almost cheated the gallows. But after a foot chase through the north end of Orwigsburg Riggs was recaptured near the Orwigsburg Fair Grounds and returned to the prison.
Jimmy Riggs also tried to starve himself to death, he then took a mixture of whiskey and blue ink and drank it. Alerted the Sheriff had Doctor S.M.Zulich of Orwigsburg administer a dose of sulphurate zinc which caused Riggs to vomit out the deadly mixture.
On Friday, the 13th of August 1847, Jimmy Riggs went to the gallows that was erected in the jail yard of the Orwigsburg prison. From 3 o’clock in the morning, Jimmy prayed under the guidance of Rev. Hoffmier and Yeager who told him his soul would be saved.
With word of the up coming hanging, crowds gathered in Orwigsburg hoping to get a glimpse of the first execution to be held in Schuylkill County. But, the scaffold was erected so low that it was invisible to anyone on the outside of the prison yard.
At 2:16 p.m., High Sheriff John T. Werner led Jimmy Riggs to the scaffold. The condemned man sat on a chair given to him by Deputy William Garrett and moaned and groaned when Rev. Hoffmeir offered a prayer.
Riggs’ last words were in asking forgiveness for himself and everybody, He said, “Let this be a warning to every person, “he moaned...”Glory to God our redeemer.”
Jimmy then bade farewell to one of his jurors he recognized in the yard. He then clutched the hand of Sheriff Warner until compelled to drop it. The Sheriff adjusted the noose around his neck. Jimmy was left standing on the scaffold by himself, when the trap sprung and he was launched into eternity. Jimmy Riggs was left hanging for 33 minutes when he was cut down and carried to a room in the prison.
Now there is a weird and ghoulish ending to this story. Doctor’s. J. S. Carpenter, S.M. Zulich and W.J. Brown, actually three of the nine doctors on hand as the Journal reported began to perform experiments on the body of Jimmy Riggs. They attached a galvanic battery to the corpse with the intention one would assume to see if they could revive him. But all they got was some occasional contractions of the muscles.
So ended Schuylkill Counties first of 16 hangings .

In 1851 the courthouse was moved to Pottsville and the county jail went along with it. The jail was erected in 1851. The original jail had 38 cells, each cell could hold two prisoners, and the old lighting consisted of kerosene lamps. It cost $70,000 to build. In 1876 the prison was greatly enlarged with a new addition it contained 86 cells besides six dungeons in the cellar, bringing the total capacity up to 124 cells.

Joe Browns Execution
The first man to be executed by hanging in Pottsville was Joe Brown executed on March 21, 1875. 28 years after Jimmy Riggs.

The six man gallows for the Mollies on June 21, 1877

Men who where at the Hanging of the Mollies on June 21, 1877 on the Left is Patsy Collins Body master AOH Palo Alto, 2nd From Left George Byerly Warden Schuylkill Prison, ON the right end is the hangman Snyder , 3rd from the right Cappt. R.J.Linden Pinkeroton.

The next to be executed in the county jail were six of the famed Mollie Maguire’s.
James Boyle, and Hugh McGeehan were led to the scaffold together. They were followed by James Carroll, James Roarity, and finally Thomas Munley and Thomas Duffy, On June 21, 1877.

Next was another Mollie Maguire Dennis Donnelly, on June 11, 1878 followed by Jack “Black Jack “ Kehoe on December 18, 1878 and Martin Bergan on January 16, 1879.

On this scaffold Kehoe, Donnelly, Bergan and others wee execuited. It is just a section of the six man gallows used on the Mollies. The executioner was hidden in the tent behind the scaffold.
The next execution was held on October 23, 1894 when Peter Broski went to the gallows.

Six years later Thomas Brennan would meet his fate on the scaffold on February 15th 1900.

In 1908 eight years after Brennan was executed Schuylkill County will execute two men, on March 26, 1908 Charles Warzel and again on May 26th Felix Radzius were executed by hanging.

The last man to be executed in Schuylkill County prison was Joe Christock who was executed on March 30th , 1911.

Everyone else from Schuylkill County executed would meet their fate by way of electrocution.

Following are some photos of the inside of the prison before its renovation and some actual photo’s of the scaffold used on the Mollie Maguire’s and the section used for all the remaining executions.

For general information the legal responsibilty of executing a person sentenced to death back then lies with the Sheriff of the county. Most of the executioons could be viewed by the genral public if you were “lucky Enough” to get a ticket issued by the Sheriff. Some counties employed proffesional hangman. The man who hanged the Mollies was a man by the name of Snyder, so a photograph of a few men he day of the execution of the Mollies.
All of the executions in Schuylkill County went off with out a major incident, such as the rope breaking. The only incident was the execution of Warzell who fainted on the scaffolld and had to be held up by ropes.
Before the hanging of the six Mollie Maguires Schuylkill County Sheriff went to Philadelphia to get instructions on hanging methods. He was given a length of hemp by Edward H. Fitler, who supplied the rope for executions in the state, but refused to except payment for the rope. Hemp is always used in a hangmans rope, hemp is longer and stronger. It is first beaten and hackled until it is soft and tender and then it is twisted into strands. It is made in four parts. When finished it is perfectly round and smooth. It requires 21 feet to perform an execution properly, the surplus being used in case an accident resulting from a break. The knot is usually tied by the man who manufactures the rope so that the executioner had nothing to do but slip the loop over the prisoners head. With six men to hang the Schuylkill County Sheriff erected a monster of a gallows containing triple traps so that they could all be hung at one time. But in the end he elected to hang then two at a time.

Old Jail and Court House at time of Mollie trials 1877

Inside the Prison wall were executions took place

Inside the Prison the way it looked years ago.

The Prison

Behind this wall the executions took place.

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