Execution as spectacle: Before movies and television, hangings were entertainment

Dale M. Brumfield
John Morgan

The hanging of John F. Morgan is well known across Jackson County. But what is perhaps less known is the prominent role “spectacle executions” like Morgan’s played not just in West Virginia but throughout the entire American South.

On a freezing Dec. 16, 1897, a New York Sun reporter gathered with anywhere from 6,000-10,000 others in a 10-acre lot in Ripley, W.Va. They had arrived on foot, on horseback and in wagons from Calhoun, Mason, Kanawha and Wood counties on rutted roads made worse by heavy rains solely to watch the heavily-publicized hanging of Morgan, who had been convicted of the murder of three members of the Pfost-Greene family.

One local man looked in awe at the crowd and told the reporter, “Well, now, I reckon, they ain’t no two county fairs has ever drawed like this here hangin’.”

In West Virginia, Virginia and other states of the Deep South, hangings for centuries were carried out publicly in the jurisdictions where the crime occurred. Legislators and law enforcement believed that public executions were instructive lessons that deterred crime, especially in the Black communities, where a disproportionate number were implemented.

But over time, legislators realized they had lost control over these “carnivals of death,” where crowds turned execution days into something they found unsavory, that is, a day off from work and a reason to party.

And in Ripley, party they did, starting 24 hours before the hanging occurred. A three-person theatrical troupe showed up the morning before and performed a play of dubious taste in the town hall that according to the press was “full of killing, and they would wind up by hanging a man on the stage, to the unquestionable delight of everyone who would get in the hall, including the sheriff.” It was illegal to sell liquor in Ripley, but not to drink it, so five-gallon jugs passed freely through the crowds during the performance.

By early the next morning, the town was filled with hucksters, buskers, fakirs (vendors) and palm-readers, barking noisily to entice hung-over patrons to their corner in attempts to separate them from their money. One man clutching an armload of printed sheets called out that he had the “Last and only true confession of John F. Morgan,” and it could be had for 5 or 10 cents each. He sold out.

One Black man, peddling cheap “gold” jewelry, plucked a banjo and yodeled impromptu folk songs just outside the jail where Morgan paced, prayed and reportedly sang “Nearer my God to Thee.” Near him, another man sold boxes of corn salve for 50 cents. The Sun reporter wrote, “People threw their money” at these curbside peddlers.

By 11 a.m. the gallows were surrounded by thousands of people. Men and boys filled the surrounding trees, some there all night, to secure their spot. Many women held babies in their arms. Soon the sheriff arrived from the jail in a wagon with Morgan, escorted by around 175 men on horses.

Nearby, cheapjacks hawked hot roasted peanuts for 5 cents a bag.

After shaking hands with everyone on the platform, Morgan said a few last words before he was hooded and the noose placed around his neck. After the drop, his body was left for about a half-hour. The show was over, and the crowd began dispersing.

Virginia had a similar exhibition in 1879, just east of Richmond in New Kent County. During the hangings of two young Black men, Julius Christian and Patrick Smith, who were convicted of robbery and murder, newspapers reported that the field resembled a country fair. Booths were erected and an “educated pig” entertained, as did itinerant musicians who “enlivened the occasion.”

Hours after the hanging, as the clock struck midnight, about 500 people gathered in a nearby tobacco barn to commence a “Grand Gallows Ball.” The attendees included not just “young Black men and maidens,” but also “a dozen beautiful quadroons (people ¼ Black) from Richmond, and in the center of the building stood seven or eight Indians, belonging to the tribe from Indian Town nearby.” A band consisting of three banjo players and a fiddler kicked off the celebration with “The Mississippi Sawyer,” and the party lasted until sunrise.

Another Gallows Ball was scheduled in nearby Henrico County a few weeks after the New Kent one, but the governor commuted the young prisoner’s death sentence to life imprisonment, spoiling the plans.

These spectacles proliferated throughout the Carolinas, Georgia, Texas and Arkansas until Aug. 14, 1936, when 22-year-old Rainey Bethea was hanged for the rape of a 70-year-old white woman. His execution occurred in downtown Owensboro, Ky., in front of an all-white horde estimated at 20,000, many of them picnicking on the grass in preparation for the event.

It was to be the last spectacle execution in America.

Rainey had been convicted of both raping and murdering the woman, but he was sentenced to death only for the rape because it was the only crime in Kentucky punishable by public hanging. Murder was punishable by death also, but only in the electric chair, which was hidden behind the walls of the Kentucky State Prison in Eddyville.

In all three cases, the legislators of these states decided to put an end to these exhibitions by moving executions to their respective state penitentiaries and making them private, depriving the entertainment-hungry public of the spectacle of death. Virginia continued hangings with walls or curtains concealing the platform, but it wasn’t until 1908 that the General Assembly privatized executions in the electric chair inside the state penitentiary. After the hanging of Rainey Bethea, Kentucky conducted all executions, hangings and electrocutions, at the state prison.

And after the Morgan debacle in Ripley, the state of West Virginia moved hangings to the penitentiary at Moundsville in 1899, then switched to the electric chair in 1949.

Dale Brumfield can be reached at dalebrumfield@protonmail.com.