On This Day in 1908 and 1954 – Mary Rogers and Donald DeMag, Vermont’s First and Last 20th Century Executions.

Despite once being one of the most conservative states in the US, Vermont is seldom notable in the chronicles of crime. Unusually for so conservative a place it rarely used its death penalty before virtually abolishing it. To give readers some comparison Vermont had eight executions in the twentieth century while New York had 663 out of 605 between William Kemmler on August 6 1890 and Eddie Lee Mays on August 15 1963.. While Vermont executed eight convicts in fifty-four years New York executed seven in one day on August 12 1912.

Mary Rogers was Vermont’s first of the twentieth century and the state’s last woman to die, hanged on December 8 1905. Between the two the electric chair had replaced the gallows. First used on murderer George Warner on July 12 1919 it had to wait until July 7 1932 for murderer Bert Stacey, January 2 1947 for killer George Watson and February 8 1954 for DeMag’s crime partner Francis Blair. Murderer and escaped convict DeMag, electrocuted on December 8 1954, was Vermont’s last execution ever.

Originally from Hoosick, New York, Rogers had suffered an abusive childhood and marriage to Marcus Rogers had done little to improve her personality problems. The marital climate worsened when she accidentally killed their baby in 1901, Marcus’s family firmly believing she had deliberately dropped the child with homicidal intent. Their life together hadn’t improved when Marcus fell violently ill right after drinking a cup of tea prepared by his wife. Despite this he believed they could be reconciled. His wife had other, much darker ideas.

On August 12 1902 she did so with the help of lover Leon Perham. She met Marcus in a secluded riverside spot near Bennington and was initially friendly. She demonstrated a rope trick on Perham that she claimed a friend had taught her and persuaded her husband to let Perham bind him. Marcus expected to break free as easily as Perham had, and didn’t. He didn’t expect to be chloroformed by his estranged wife and rolled into a nearby river either, his hat left in a conspicuous spot with a suicide note pinned to it.

The case was easily solved and Mary’s trial virtually a foregone conclusion. In 1904 she faced her accusers and Perham who had turned State’s Evidence to avoid the noose. He explained everything, that Mary had first approached his brother Levi who had agreed but then declined and even that he knew Mary wanted her husband dead so she could marry mutual acquaintance Morris Knapp. Just as the absence of a hangman’s rope aids breathing it did wonders for Perham’s powers of conversation (and incrimination). Having kept his part of the deal Perham avoided a date with the hangman. Mary would be the last woman in Vermont to keep hers, but not without a fight.

For so callous a killer she had some powerful backers who wanted her sentence commuted. State Representative Frank Archibald went as far as proposing a bill specifically to cancel her execution that was defeated in the state’s House of Representatives. Undeterred, Archibald then proposed a resolution further delaying her execution. This time the House of Representatives agreed. The State Senate, however, did not. Appeals were filed as high as the US Supreme Court, but to no avail. On December 8 1905 Rogers was hanged.

DeMag wasn’t even alive when Mary Rogers mounted the scaffold. He probably wasn’t aware that his own death would be the last in the state and be inflicted exactly forty-nine years later. DeMag and Francis Blair had escaped from the state prison together in 1952 after smashing the prison gates in a stolen laundry truck. Murdering home-owner Elizabeth Weatherup and trying to murder her husband while on the run had put Blair in the electric chair on February 8 1954. DeMag, already serving life for second-degree murder, could expect little from the courts and Governor. He was right not to and he didn’t get it.

December 8 1954 saw the end of DeMag and effectively the end of Vermont’s death penalty. At 8:45pm he walked unaided to the chair escorted by the prison’s Catholic Chaplain William Read. Warden John Ferguson had spared no effort to ensure things ran smoothly. Wanting to avoid trouble and knowing so rare an event would attract public and press attention, had ordered ten extra guards to be on hand for the execution. A total of twenty people had assembled in small death chamber including the guards, Warden Ferguson, Chaplain Read, the executioner and DeMag himself.

It was over quickly. Ferguson had imported an experienced executioner from outside Vermont to do the job and the unidentified ‘electrician’ did it well. A single two-minute cycle, the executioner raising and lowering to voltage to avoid unnecessary burns and injuries, was enough. At 8:53pm Doctor William Krause confirmed that DeMag was dead. Whoever Vermont had hired proved entirely competent.

It wasn’t unusual for states to import veteran executioners when their own were so rarely employed. New York’s John Hurlburt had nearly been lynched and fled Nebraska when hired for that state’s first electrocutions. His place was taken by veteran ‘State Electrician’ E.B. Currier, former executioner for Massachusetts who came out of retirement to do the job.

Terrified by so narrowly escaping death himself, Hurlburt never returned to Nebraska. Hurlburt’s successor Robert Greene Elliott (executioner of nearly 400 convicts during his tenure) had been hired by New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut between 1926 and 1939. It had been Elliott who executed Bert Stacey back in 1932. America’s most prolific executioner, Elliott once performed two triple electrocutions in different states on the same day.

New Mexico’s first electrocution was done by Rich Owens, Oklahoma’s executioner. Owens had been hired by penitentiary Warden Edwin Swope (later Warden at Alcatraz). Whoever Vermont hired (quite possibly New York’s fifth and last executioner Dow Hover) they were up to the job. It was the last time the lights burned in Vermont’s death chamber (they never dimmed when the switch was thrown either, contrary to popular myth). The chair remained on hand, but would never be used again.

Vermont effectively abandoned capital punishment in 1965 although it remained part of state law for murder until 1987. For several years between 1972 and 1976 Vermont had no constitutional death penalty laws. 1972’s US Supreme Court ruling in Furman vs Georgia had struck down all state death penalty laws. The Court’s ruling on Gregg vs Georgia in 1976 allowed executions to resume, but Vermont’s electric chair sat idle. Today it resides in storage at the Vermont Historical Society, donated by prison authorities on condition it never be put on public display. Never again is a Vermont prisoner likely to hear a judge use the dreaded phrase:

“The punishment of death shall be inflicted by causing to pass through the body of the convict a current of electricity of sufficient intensity to cause death, and the application of such a current until such convict is dead.”

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