On This Day in 1885, NOT Roxalana Druse.

Roxalana Druse, convicted of brutally murdering husband William, would have entered New York State’s chronicles of crime on this day in 1885. The Empire State’s last woman to hang (and the first hanging in Herkimer County) she had been condemned on October 6.

Her defence had been diminished capacity caused by William’s alleged abuse. Prosecution witnesses, however, testified she had repeatedly threatened him and was well known for her hot temper and combative nature. Whether William mistreated her we will never know. Whether she and her children murdered him is beyond reasonable doubt. William, his burned and boiled remains having been found in several different places, had died on December 18 1884.   

Her eventual death in Herkimer County Jail’s yard on February 28 1887 was awfully bungled causing New York State to consider more modern and hopefully more humane means of execution. With her neck not instantly broken Druse hung for fifteen minutes before taking her last gasp. It was also the death knell for New York’s gallows. Courtesy of an official commission looking to repace the gallows the then-new electric chair was first used in August 1890.

The age of the hangman was almost over. That of the ‘State Electrician’ was about to begin.

Roxalana might have spent less time between trial and execution had she been a man who murdered, dismembered, burned and scattered the remains of his wife. Had it been so it’s debatable whether husband William would have survived more than a few months. Well into the twentieth century New York’s male killers could still go from courtroom to chair in mere months. Roxalana’s wait, a little over two years, was comparatively long for its time.

New York had been considering replacing its gallows for several years and was still discussing options when Druse was condemned. Between sentencing by Judge Williams and execution by the County Sheriff public, press and political debate raged. Should capital punishment should be abolished, retained only for men or kept as it was? Roxalana’s slow, painful death by the old-fashioned noose both stimulated debate and ultimately resolved the issue. Just as Roxalana had had to go, so did the gallows.

Sentenced on October 6 Roxalana would have had her dates with history and the hangman on November 25. Appeals, public controversy, political debate and State Governor David B. Hill delayed things considerably. Justice and the hangman, though, would not be cheated. Slated to die on 25 November 1885, Roxalana Druse finally met her fate on 28 February 1887  

The day dawned cold and clear. Soldiers and deputies surrounded the jail keeping unwelcome spectators at a distance. Around fifty people would watch Roxalana, small and possibly underweight, keep her date with the hangman. Never having executed anyone before the County Sheriff had chosen ‘suspension hanging’ for the occasion. It proved as unwise as it was disastrous.

An unconventional method, suspension hanging, known as the ‘upright jerker’ or ‘jerk-em-up’ gallows, saw a huge counterweight drop and the prisoner be jerked violently upward. It was supposed to bring instant, painless death, but didn’t. In fact it very seldom worked as intended.

By 1887 their British counterparts had developed and refined hanging to become one of the fastest and cleanest methods available. American hangmen, however, hadn’t. Instead of calculating a drop for each individual prisoner, instantly breaking their neck without strangling or beheading, they often used the same length of rope regardless of the prisoner’s height, weight and physique.

The result was hangings as likely to be botched as go smoothly, many suffering horribly as a result. An early attempt to refine the ‘standard drop,’ suspension proved equally unreliable. It killed well enough, but frequently cruelly. After Roxalana’s fifteen minutes of fame (and dreadful agony) hanging in general became unacceptable.  

The day might have been cold, but Roxalana wasn’t. Her icy resolve and indifferent attitude had melted. So too had her short fuse and defiant nature, no longer was she the unrepentant prisoner cursing at the local priest. She cried her way to the gallows, her tears stopped only by the counterweight intended to deliver merciful death. It failed.

Jerked upward, she twisted and contorted for fifteen agonising minutes. Her suffering appalling spectators. Press reports were clear; the execution had been botched, Roxalana had died hideously and public outrage demanded a replacement. After much research and behind-the-scenes wrangling between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse the so-called ‘Death Commission’ provided it.

Hangings continued in New York until December 5 and 6, 1889. By then the electric chair was almost ready, the gallows continuing only until the first chair could be completed. Harry Carleton and John Greenwall paid their debt at New York City’s Raymond Street and Tombs jails. With both men dead (quickly and cleanly for once) city executioner ‘Little Ike’ Atkinson finally retired.

Newly-employed ‘State Electrician’ Edwin F. Davis continued where Atkinson left off, beginning with William Kemmler at Auburn Prison on 6 August 1890. The world’s very first ‘electrical execution proved as disastrous as the hanging of Roxalana Druse. Refined and improved through regular trial and frequently gruesome error, the method would remain in use for over a century.

Druse, Carleton, Greenwall and Kemmler each have a chapter in my new book Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in New York which, by a handy coincidence, is out in bookstores and available online from today.     

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