(Another story from a speech Pip gave the Sheriff and the other deputies. I've added historical notes at the bottom of the page--HEC)

The hanging of Willie or "Billy" Williams for the murder of Mrs. Keller and her son at Reed's Court, near the Cathedral, took place about August 1906 or 7. Sheriff Miesen assigned me the duties of execution of the scaffold. It was erected in the basement of the jail. A fellow by the name of Gotscha was to be hanged three days later but he committed suicide and the second disagreeable duty was avoided.

Williams had no religious faith, and I induced him to consult a clergyman. Father Dolphin Poster of St. Patrick's Church called and soon thereafter baptized him. I rigged him up a nice new suit of clothes, shirt, tie and underwear. I drew his last will in which he gave me the revolver he shot the woman and boy with, and I kept it until a few weeks ago when it was stolen from me. I did not like the idea of taking a man's life. I took it up with my religious advisor who said, "Do your work, leave out your personality and do your work as a deputy sheriff. You will never dream or see him in your sleep." I sent for a manilla rope, 24 feet long and as big as your little finger. This was rolled around the post, over the gallows six or eight times, and adjusted to leave a leeway of 7½ feet. Williams was 5 feet 7 and weighed 180 lbs. I had a gunny sack filled with 200 lbs of sand to sound out the workings. Unbeknown to me. The Sheriff, Miesen, often took friends over to the County Jail and dropped the bag many times. In doing so he stretched the rope and made the space shorter. Having witnessed the execution of Wilson at Chicago City for killing two Frenchmen and badly injuring Dr. Foster of this city. When they took the black cap off of his head his eyes bulged out and his tongue way out of his mouth ans his neck burnt by the rope. Not wishing an occurrence of this kind, I consulted Dr. Quinn, who stated to me to soap the rope well, to get the knot under his ear, give it a jerk and signal the sheriff to pull the lever. Williams dropped rigidly and rendered senseless and unconscious. There was a relaxation of muscles and neck stretched the tip of his toes touched the floor. Perceiving this, I reached for the rope and brought the rope to the side of the trap, suspending him three or four inches from the floor. And after holding him in this position for fifteen minutes, he was pronounced dead by Dr. Ohage, neck not broken, was strangled to death. He had neck like a bull, was a coal miner. The cap was removed, Williams's eyes were closed, his mouth closed and you would have thought he was asleep.

Many people said Williams was a degenerate. I spent many hours with him playing cards, and asked him why he killed these people. He answered that he did not know that he had killed them. "I can't make it out," he said. Williams killed these people in a frenzy. A month or so before he was hanged he asked for a clean towel and it was refused and he had another frenzy. He cussed the jailers, refused to go in his cell. The next morning when I visited the jail I found him in the corridor, weak and fagged out. He had raved all night. The jailers were afraid to go near him. I carried him to his cell and put him to bed. During all my intimacy with him, I never heard him say an immoral remark nor a cuss word.

During his trial, there appeared in court an English woman who supplied him with money, reading matter and fruit and volunteered to pay for an appeal to the Supreme Court. Nobody seemed to know her by name or where she came from.

Before the execution, the sheriff issued admission cards to see the hanging. I made a measurement of the basement and found it would hold more than 500 people. After the hanging Governor Johnson wrote the sheriff asking him if more persons were allowed by law to witness the hanging. The letter was given to me. I answered that some of the jurors, a few witnesses, his attorney and a few others who were sworn in as deputy sheriffs, sufficient to maintain order. As a matter of fact, more than 300 people witnessed the hanging. A printer for the Pioneer Press, through my solicitation got a card to witness the hanging. He erased his name and gave the card to the Press, who published it. Look out, some damn fool friend will throw you down.

(The following handwritten note is attached--HEC)
Hanging does not stop murder. 99 percent is done premature, arriving out of heat of passion, from argument and quarrels. But premeditated murder should be removed by death, but by electrocution or by gun while dead asleep.

Well, fellow deputies, I have given you a few narrations of what you may have to go against. When you have a fellow that wants you to do a thing in a hurry, you go slow before you do it and think it over, and when a fellow tells you that there is no hurry, take your time, do it quick.

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The Execution of William Williams in History

Pip's account of the execution of Willie Williams is the most historically significant story he tells. He doesn't go into the aftermath of the execution, but the 15 minutes it took Williams to die still affect Minnesota politics and criminal justice.

Pip wrote this story several decades after the events he describes, but the story holds up well when investigated. A few details are misremembered, but even when he misremembers there is fact behind the misremembering. For example, Pip recalls that the execution took place in August and was a few days before the scheduled date of the execution of a man named "Gotscha." In fact, the execution took place on February 13, 1906. However, there is good reason for the error. Williams's execution was originally scheduled for August 9, 1905, the day after the scheduled execution of Gottschalk. But, Gottschalk committed suicide and Williams received a stay of execution while his case was appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

The story Pip tells of how the number of witnesses increased to more than 300 may also be a misremembering. He may be remembering events surrounding the non-execution of Gottschalk. The St. Paul Pioneer Press recalled, on March 3, 1906, that Sheriff Miesen planned to turn that execution into a spectacle. "Formal invitations were issued for that hanging, and half the men of St. Paul were looking forward to seeing a real show." Governor Johnson was angry and sent Miesen a letter warning him that such goings on were against the law. The 1889 John Day Smith law strictly limited the number of witnesses, specifically banned any newspaper reporters or any other newspaper representatives from witnessing an execution, and prohibited any newspaper reporting beyond the bare mention that the execution had taken place. All of this was about to become very important in the aftermath of the Williams execution.

The report of the execution in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, on February 13, 1906, is quite detailed. Virtually all of Pip's account is corroborated. This included the detail of William's relatively painless death by strangulation and his conversion to Catholicism a few days prior to the execution. The only detail left out of the Pioneer Press article is the bit about the rope being too long. And that detail was going to cause a sensation.

Apparently, a reporter did get into the execution chamber. I'm not yet certain which newspaper he worked for, but it apparently wasn't the Pioneer Press. According to Sheriff Miesen, the reporter snuck in through a door accidently left open and didn't get into the death chamber until after the execution. But that was enough. Apparently his account was highly colored and it caused a sensation. On February 15, the Pioneer Press reported that the sheriff had been summoned by the governor to explain himself. The sheriff's account of the number and identities of the witnesses (Pip says he prepared this account) and how the reporter got into the chamber satisfied the governor, barely. The Pioneer Press reported a fierce cross-questioning of the sheriff. "But a search of the political calendar suggests that this is the closed season on Democratic sheriffs." As an afterthought, the article on this meeting mentions reports that the rope was too long.

The law that limited the number of witnesses of the execution also limited reporting of executions. The law seems to have been rarely, if ever, enforced, but in this case it was. The sensation caused by the reports of details, particularly the detail of the rope length, was too much and the St. Paul newspapers were prosecuted, convicted, and fined. The fine was nominal, but the newspapers appealed unsuccessfully to the Minnesota Supreme Court. Although the arguments, based on the First and Fourteenth Amendments, used by the newspapers were unsuccessful in the 1900's, thirty years later the same arguments prevailed in establishing modern freedom of the press standards.

The extensive newspaper coverage of the Williams execution has had its own influence on Minnesota law and criminal justice. The effort to abolish capital punishment in Minnesota was strengthened by the accounts which appeared in the newspapers. In 1911, Minnesota abolished the death penalty in large part due to the events surrounding the execution of Williams. Willie Williams was the last person executed in Minnesota.

I have found several modern accounts of the death of Williams. Almost all seem written in an attempt to persuade Minnesotans not to re-establish capital punishment. In those accounts the execution of Williams is highly colored. The 15 minutes it took Williams to die are made to seem an eternity. The accounts barely resemble Pip's eye-witness account nor the account in the Pioneer Press. In addition to the Pioneer Press's account, I based much of this historical summary on an article which appeared in Ramsey County History, A Publication of the Ramsey County Historical Society, Vol 35, No. 3, Fall 2000. The article by Anne Cowie was titled The Ramsey County Attorney's Office and Its 150 Years: All the Frailties of Human Nature. This article provided historical details about the impact of the execution that the more politicized accounts ignored.

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