On This Day in 1936 – George ‘Diamond King’ Barrett, first to die for murdering a Federal agent.

Barrett is certainly a criminal curiosity. His life was one of crime and allegedly several murders. The murder for which he finally died gave him an unwilling place in the chronicles of American crime, though he was hardly appreciated becoming one of history’s footnotes. So why did he hang in a state which had long discarded its gallows and how could a simple matter of geography have seen him possibly cheat the hangman?  

Though he claimed to have more significant and lucrative rackets, Barrett stuck mainly to stealing cars and reselling them. His methods were simple, but sophisticated for their time. Rather than simply steal cars and resell them in different States, Barrett would gain legal title to similar models then replace the engines and identifying marks to disguise its origin. Clever for his time, but not clever enough to avoid the FBI which had been tracking him since 1931.

Since 1919 the Dyer Act had made it a Federal crime to transport stolen cars across State lines. It had proven lethal to John Dillinger, whose driving a stolen car from Indiana into Illinois allowed the Bureau to enter the hunt. Stealing Sheriff Lillian Holley’s car while escaping from Crown Point’s jail had been Dillinger’s downfall when Dillinger died in Chicago in July 1934. In August 1935 Special Agents Nelson Klein and Donald McGovern would dethrone the Diamond King. It would cost Klein and Barrett their lives.

It probably wasn’t Barrett’s first murder. In 1931 he had been acquitted of murdering his wife and daughter, an acquittal that might have had some something to do with prosecutor Frank Baker being Barrett’s cousin. Baker’s seeming lack of enthusiasm drew the attention of the trial judge who remarked that Baker at times sounded more like he was defending rather than prosecuting.

With Barrett pleading self-defense and two juries unable to reach a verdict he walked free although that did little good to Baker’s reputation. Baker himself had little time to endure any carping. He was murdered, allegedly by Barrett, who gained another hung jury in 1933. It is unlikely Klein was the first notch on Barrett’s gun, but he was certainly Barrett’s last. Their encounter in College Corner, Ohio on August 14, 1935 was fatal for both of them.

College Corner actually straddles the Ohio-Indiana State line so it’s entirely possible to fire a gun in one State and kill somebody in the other. Cornered by Klein and his partner McGovern, Barrett did exactly that. He was a mere twenty-two yards inside Indian when he shot and killed Agent Klein, Klein in turn had severely wounded Barrett’s legs ensuring an uninjured McGovern could capture Barrett. The Diamond King’s reign was almost over, the only question being whether he would die in Ohio or Indiana. That he would die for the crime was barely in doubt.

In the spring of 1934 the US Congress had vastly increased Federal law enforcement’s powers including making the murder of Federal agents a capital crime under Federal law.   Had he not murdered a Federal agent Barrett’s jurisdictional issues could have delayed his trial for years and an adept appeal could have seen him cheat the hangman. The change in Federal law now provided death by hanging regardless of where the murder was committed or the method of execution a State normally used. It made no difference that both Ohio and Indiana had long discarded the gallows for the electric chair. It also took little time for Ohio and Indiana to agree that Indiana could try Barrett. Still crippled by Klein’s bullets, Barrett would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. He had little time left to endure it.

Barrett’s was the first capital case tried under the new law and began at the Indianapolis Federal Courthouse on December 2, 1935. It was the first capital murder trial held at Indiana’s Federal District Court, ending on December 8 with a guilty verdict and no recommendation for mercy. Barrett was promptly condemned to hang and would die on March 24, 1936 at the Marion County Jail. On March it was announced that another curious figure would enter his case, the so-called ‘Humane Hangman’ George Philip Hanna. Hanna was a strange character indeed.

Hanna’s interest in the death penalty reportedly went back long before Barrett’s untimely end. He was said to have witnessed a bungled hanging decades earlier and been so appalled he devoted part of his life to developing more humane (or less inhumane) ideas. A reasonably-wealthy farmer in private life, Hanna quickly developed a reputation for providing quicker, cleaner death without ever pulling a gallows lever himself.

He studied ropes, lengths of drop and advised executioners in several States on the art and science of more humane hanging, also providing the ropes while his wife made the hoods worn by the condemned who could choose either white or black as they preferred. He would arrive the day before an execution to advise and supervise for no pay, his only requirements being a bottle of whiskey and to keep the weapons used by a condemned murderer.

His reputation and reliability quickly earned him a large collection, when he briefly met Barrett just after midnight on March 24, 1936 he had supervised over seventy executions already. Barrett’s would go as smoothly as anyone could expect considering he was still confined to a wheelchair. Still crippled by his wounds, Barrett would have to be carried to the gallows and supported once he got there.

When the time came the Diamond King was dethroned in silence. He had no final words and had to be raised atop the scaffold on a stretcher. After being hauled up via a coal chute into a large tent shielding the gallows from unauthorised spectators Barrett was quickly strapped, hooded and the noose was positioned carefully around his neck. Once on the trapdoor he remained silent, supported by a pair of deputy marshals and wearing a pair of white pyjamas. The end was mercifully brief with around fifty witnesses gathered to watch him die.

His last request had been for his brother to attend. Ironically he had been caught at College Corner because the FBI knew his brother lived there, but although a telegram was sent there was no reply before the scheduled time. At 12:02am the trap was sprung. Barrett was pronounced dead around ten minutes later. He was the first American criminal to die for murdering a Federal agent. He would be far from the last.

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