by L. Kay Gillespie
Chapter 2. Mountain Justice
[p.17]In the American west executions did not always proceed according to protocol. Vigilante justice was a popular concept (though the number of documented incidents is small). The earliest record of an “execution”—that of a native American named Patsowits in southern Utah—was probably an instance of this “mountain justice.”
John W. Gunnison, a government surveyor who came to Utah with the Stansbury expedition, recorded the following on 29 April 1850: “Patsowits, one of the Utah Indians has been discovered lurking about here [shores of Great Salt Lake]. He is accused of killing an emigrant near Sampete [sic] last week & has been driven from Utah. 5 p.m.—A company is pointed out near Mill Creek who are to shoot & bury him. He strove manfully against being bound in the council house—but no earthly mercy is shown.”1
Historian Dale Morgan described this incident in detail:
The execution of Patsowits constitutes almost a lost episode in Utah History. It was said to have been [p.18]he who killed Joseph Higbee in the Fort Utah fight. He escaped after that battle and occupied himself killing stock. On April 21 Isaac Morley in Sanpete Valley wrote Brigham Young he had learned from the Utes that Patsowits had killed six cattle, two mules, and two horses in Salt Lake Valley and was threatening to kill the cattle of the Mormons and of the Ute chief, Walker, in Sanpete Valley. On April 8 Isaac Higbee wrote from Fort Utah that he understood Patsowits to be at Great Salt Lake. “He and his brother have been killing cattle since the war with the Indians and threatened to kill every white man that he can. We have been searching for him to kill him, but have not found him yet. But we found his brother and have killed him. We wish you would search for him, and, if he can be found in your valley, to kill him before he can do any more mischief.” On the following day, April 29, a letter arrived from Sanpete Valley reporting that “Baker who went to Sanpete with the provisions recently sent to the settlers there, imprudently started on his return trip alone. On the way he was met by two Ute Indians to whom he gave some powder, after which they shot him with his own powder.” Patsowits accordingly was taken into custody and the [LDS church] Historians’s Office Journal for April 29 records he was tried and sentenced to die: “The Indian was very boisterous, talking long and loud. He was finally put into the hands of three or four men for safe keeping. He fought desperately, when they attempted to bind him, and it took five men to hold him while he was being pinioned. He finally became more quiet and was taken in Levi Savage’s wagon outside the city, where chapl[a]in [John] Kay and the Sheriff [James Ferguson] administered his last religious rites before he died. Several persons were present and witnessed [p.19]the execution.” Seemingly, the Indian was not shot, as Gunnison’s journal entry would imply, but garrotted; from his book Gunnison writes (147) that Patsowits was “caught and killed by the bowstring.” Apparently this was the first formal execution in Utah history.2
Hosea Stout, an early Mormon, also wrote about this death in his journal for Monday, 29 April 1850: “Pat Souette [Patsowits?] was arrested & tried & nepoed [opened] today. He escaped over the mountains with some others in the Utah war & came back & was trying to way lay & kill all the whites he could catch alone. One man had been killed coming from San Pete here lately.” The editor of Stout’s journals, Juanita Brooks, explained what “nepoed” probably meant: “Since it is ‘open’ spelled backwards, there is a conjecture that it might refer to a practice of disemboweling a murdered man, filling the abdominal cavity with rocks, and throwing the body into a stream or lake.” Brooks also notes that “the young Indian who was ‘nepoed’ on April 27 , 1850, did not have a public trial but was condemned by a military group.”3
These accounts leave a number of issues ambiguous. They suggest that Patsowit’s brother had also been killed by the settlers or military authorities. Perhaps then the brother’s was the first “execution.” There are also questions about how official or legal the “execution” was and by what method Patsowits died—whether shot, “garrotted”, or “nepoed.”
Another early execution apparently occurred on a wagon trail. The company was traveling toward California and as the group was passing Devil’s Gate, one traveler killed another. It is not clear whether this was Devil’s Gate at the mouth of Weber Canyon or Devil’s Gate, Wyoming. The company held a trial with a jury and condemned the man to death. After he was attended by a clergyman, he was [photo p.20]hung from the end of a wagon pole [p.21]because there were no trees in the vicinity.4 The wagon master would have had legal authority to order the execution, as does a ship’s captain.
William (Wild Bill) Hickman in his “autobiography” recounts a similar hanging which occurred while he was guiding a wagon train from Utah to California. A man named Hensley killed John Watson, another member of the party. Hensley apparently took offense at something Watson had said and later that night shot him in the head while he slept. A trial was held with a jury composed of members of Hickman’s train and another train they met coming from California. Hensley was found guilty and hanged on the spot.5 There are many who question Hickman’s authority to implement such action.
References to two other executions have been found. In 1896 the Salt Lake Tribune refers to an Indian condemned for “ravishing and murdering a white woman” and executed at the “white bridge” over the Jordan River. Also, the Deseret News refers to the execution of a man in 1862: “A man whose name is not available was shot in the county jail yard in Tooele for murder.” Neither the name of this man nor the exact date or details of his crime have been documented. The only Tooele execution so far identified occurred in 1866 and took place on the bench above Tooele.
Excluding the above accounts, I have documented forty-seven legal executions in Utah since 1847 for forty-three separate crimes. Two double-executions with both men dying simultaneously have occurred; in two other double-executions both men were executed but at different times.
Of Utah’s forty-seven executions, thirty-nine were by firing squad, six by hanging, and two by lethal injection. Each of these three methods of execution was carefully prescribed by tradition and statute.
The firing squad usually consisted of five men, generally volunteers from the sheriff’s office in the county where the crime occurred. Members of the firing squad are concealed [p.22: Drawing of the hanging apparatus used to execute Charles Thiede, 8 August 1896.] [p.23]in tents, behind curtains, or some other device to protect their identities. Each man has a rifle; one contains a blank cartridge. A target is pinned over the heart of the person to be executed. The command to fire is given and each of the men shoots at the target. Usually the firing squad is placed no more than fifty feet from the condemned, although the distance in Utah has varied from thirty to one hundred eighty feet.
As a general rule the condemned to be hanged climbed a gallows. Once on the platform, he stood over a trap door through which he dropped once the noose had been placed around his neck. The last hanging in Utah occurred in 1956.
In 1896 a unique form of hanging was attempted. Charles Thiede, condemned to die for killing his wife, stood on the ground with a rope around his neck. The rope went up through a pulley system and along an upright beam with a large weight attached at the other end. Three men held and released ropes, only one of which was attached to the weight. The condemned was supposed to be yanked from the ground and his neck broken when the weight was released. The device was only used once. Thiede was yanked off the ground, but his neck was not broken and he was strangled to death.
Three of the last four executions in Utah have been by lethal injection. Pierre Dale Selby was executed on 28 August 1987 and Arthur Gary Bishop on 10 June 1988. In both cases the condemned was brought into a small room and strapped to a gurney about three and a half to four feet above the floor. Eight straps were tightened around his body (two at the ankles, one at the knees, thighs, waist, and chest, and one around each wrist). An I.V. was started in each arm, one as a backup should the other become clogged. When the witnesses were assembled, the curtain to the execution chamber was opened and the warden gave a signal to two executioners who waited behind a one-way glass mirror. At this point, the lethal solution [photo p.24] [p.25]was introduced into the bloodstream. Death followed anywhere from three to four minutes later.
Of the forty-nine men formally executed in Utah, forty-one were white, two hispanic, two black, and two native American. In the past, challenges have been made on the basis of race and ethnicity. In a 1987 appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, attorneys for condemned inmate Richard McClesky argued the death penalty was racially discriminatory in that those whose victims were white, especially if the offender was black, were more likely to receive the death penalty than those whose victims were black. Opponents of the death penalty have also argued that more blacks than whites are executed. In making their ruling in the McClesky case, the Supreme Court stated: “Apparent disparities in sentencing are an inevitable part of our criminal justice system. … Where the discretion that is fundamental to our criminal process is involved, we decline to assume that what is unexplained is invidious.” 6
The racial distribution of executions does not appear to be disproportional to the general racial distribution in Utah. Data about the racial distribution of victims are more ambiguous, although race does not appear to have been a major factor in Utah executions. Of the fifty-eight victims (excluding the Mountain Meadows Massacre), fifty-seven were white and one was black. There have been no executions where the victims were hispanic or native American.
The extent to which religion has been a factor is more difficult to ascertain. Early relations in Utah were polarized along Mormon/non-Mormon lines. Animosity and suspicion existed between both groups. Gentile newspapers asserted that Mormon criminals were not pursued with the same vigor accorded non-Mormon offenders. A 3 November 1889 editorial in the Valley Tan charged:
The execution of Ferguson we have been informed, is the first that has ever taken place in this [p.26]Territory by a regular judicial sentence. Of the many murders that have taken place here, the perpetrators of them have in all instances escaped, or no notice whatever has been taken of their crime, the general belief being, that they were authorized or commanded by those who wield a despotic power over the lives and actions of the deluded and fanatical people that dwell in this Territory. … We … cannot help thinking that [Ferguson’s] fate could have been different if he had been a professed Mormon.
Of the forty-nine men executed in Utah, twenty-five were non-Mormon, eight Mormon, and fourteen unknown. This is not representative of the population in general, but most non-Mormon executed men had recently come to Utah from out-of-state or were passing through at the time of their crimes. This begs the question, but it could indicate the presence of some degree of xenophobia or the reality of Utah’s sparse population and geographical location as well as religious discrimination.
Utah has never executed or sentenced a woman to death—although women have committed heinous crimes (see chapter eight). In the United States in general, women have been protected from the death penalty. Although the homicide arrest rate for women has been constant with and almost identical to that of men, only thirty-eight women have been executed in the United States since 1900. The last woman executed was Velma Barfield in 1984, and she was the first since the California execution of “Ma” Duncan in 1962. Only thirteen states have executed women. At the present time, of over two thousand condemned inmates on death row across the United States, only twenty-seven are women.
Utah has never executed anyone under the age of [p.27]eighteen, although juveniles have committed terrible crimes (see chapter eight). The youngest were Harry Thorne and Chauncy Millard—both eighteen at the time of execution. The oldest were John D. Lee, sixty-four, and Edward McGowan, fifty-one. The age distribution of the executed men in Utah is as follows:
Under 20 3 20-29 18 30-39 16 40-49 5 50 & over 2 Unknown 5
The death penalty has been prescribed for a variety of crimes throughout the United States, including rape, kidnapping, hijacking, skyjacking, and espionage. In Utah, executions have been carried out only for murder or for being an accomplice to murder. Of the forty-three crimes resulting in the state’s forty-seven executions, seventeen murders were committed with robbery or financial gain as the motive; thirteen were the result of personal/family disputes or arguments; eleven were committed with a specific intent to kill; and two to satisfy sexual desire. A gun was used in thirty-one homicides; a knife in four; strangling in three; and in five, bludgeoning using an axe, a gun, a flat iron, a hammer, and a small mallet. Conspicuously absent is poisoning.
These crimes were committed in thirteen of Utah’s twenty-nine counties. Most of them occurred, as expected, along the more densely populated Wasatch Front:
Salt Lake County 20 Utah County 5 Weber County 4 [p.28]Summit County 3 Tooele County 2 Carbon County 2 Beaver County 1 Davis County 1 Duchesne County 1 Iron County 1 Rich County 1 San Juan County 1 Washington County 1
The time between crime and execution has varied widely. The execution of Pierre Dale Selby in 1987 occurred thirteen years after the killing of three people in the Ogden Hi-Fi Shop. Earlier, executions were conducted soon after conviction. In Tooele in 1866, Thomas Sutton was executed eight days after killing a man named White. In 1862 Jason Luce was executed for cutting the throat of a man named Bunton thirty-six days after his crime. William Cockroft killed his neighbor with a shotgun blast over a water dispute. He was executed 21 September 1861, fifty-one days later. Thomas Ferguson was hanged forty-one days after killing his employer.
The time between William Andrews’s crime and execution was by no means the longest. The Mountain Meadows Massacre occurred in 1857. Twenty years later, 25 March 1877, John D. Lee was brought back to the site of the massacre where he was executed while seated on his coffin.
One other execution—actually a double execution—caused public and official concern about the delay. On 22 October 1949, the opening day of the Utah deer hunt, Melvin Braasch and LeRoy Sullivan killed, execution style, a young service station attendant in Beaver, Utah. Both were sentenced to die but received four different dates of execution before the sentences were actually carried out. Governor J.
[p.29]Bracken Lee became so frustrated he threatened to charge the U.S. government for the costs of keeping the condemned alive. They were both eventually executed by firing squad while sitting side by side on 11 May 1956, almost seven years after their crime.
Excluding participants in the Mountain Meadows Massacre, twenty-one accomplices were involved in the forty-three Utah crimes resulting in execution. Only four accomplices were executed for their role in the crimes; sixteen were given sentences other than death.
John McCormick (also known as Jack Emerson) was sentenced to life in prison. After five years he was pardoned as the last official act of Governor Eli H. Murray. He was an accomplice to Fred Hopt who was executed on 11 August 1887.
Fred George was sentenced to life in prison rather than death because of his youth at the time of the crime. He was paroled on 20 December 1902 and less than two years later, on 19 June 1904, was granted a full pardon “because of the exemplary life he had led.” He was an accomplice to Patrick Coughlin who was executed on 15 December 1896.
John Murray (also known as Mike Connors) was sentenced to life in prison. He was involved in the robbery of the Savings and Thrift Shop but was not with J. J. Morris at the time of the killing. No further records are available. Morris was executed on 30 April 1912.
“Red” was the third accomplice in the grocery store holdup and killing of George Fassell. Harry Thorne was executed on 26 September 1912 and Thomas Riley on 24 October 1912. “Red” was never caught or heard from again.
John Corier and Robert Zaffy were accomplices to Frank Romeo who was executed on 20 February 1913. Corier was granted a separate trial and sentenced to life in prison on the jury’s recommendation for mercy. Zaffy was sentenced to die with Romeo, but his sentence was commuted to life [p.30]in prison by the Board of Pardons the day before his scheduled execution. The board reasoned that Zaffy had been drinking and was not as culpable as Romeo.
“Unknown,” a suspected accomplice to Joe Hill who was executed on 19 November 1915, was never arrested or heard from again. The crime for which Hill was executed involved two men. As Hill and his accomplice made their get-a-way, one eyewitness said she heard one of the men say, “Oh, Bob.” Others have surmised the accomplice might have been Otto Applequist, who was known to be in the Salt Lake City area with Hill.
Martha, the common-law wife of George H. Gardner who was executed on 31 August 1925, was originally charged with murder. Her first trial ended in a hung jury after twenty-seven hours of deliberation. She was never retried.
Arthur Hayes was tried for murder and given a life sentence on the jury’s recommendation for mercy. His sentence was eventually overturned by Utah’s supreme court and a new trial was ordered. At his new trial he was found guilty of second degree robbery, given a five-year prison sentence, and paroled on 16 October 1926. He was accomplice to Henry C. Hett (also known as George Allen) who was executed on 20 February 1925.
Joseph Eli Marenger (also known as Ralph Sanders) and Noel E. White (also known as George Williams) were accomplices to Ralph Seyboldt, who was executed on 15 January 1926. Marenger pleaded guilty to second degree murder and was given a twenty-year sentence. He was paroled from the Utah state prison on 1 July 1930 after serving almost seven years. He went to California to live with his mother and sister. White, who was sixteen at the time of the crime, also pleaded guilty to second degree murder and was given a twenty-year sentence. His sentence was commuted by the Board of Pardons after he served a little over ten years. A third accomplice, Leland Elmer, pleaded guilty to attempted robbery.
[p.31]Roverda Avery, wife of Walter Robert Avery who was executed on 5 February 1945, was originally arrested as an accomplice since she drove him to the robbery and waited in the car outside while the killing took place. She was later released.
LeRoy Edward Ritchie was given a life sentence after the jury recommended leniency. He was never paroled. On 15 May 1954 he died of tuberculosis in an Ogden, Utah, sanitarium where he had been sent for treatment. He was an accomplice to James Joseph Roedl, who was executed on 13 July 1945.
Wilma Tulley was in a police car when a policeman was shot. She then escaped but was later caught in Nevada and provided evidence against Don Jesse Neal. She was released and never prosecuted. It has been suggested she actually fired the shot which killed the officer and that Neal protected her. Neal was executed on 1 July 1955.
Keith Roberts and William Andrews were tried separately—Roberts alone and Andrews with Pierre Dale Selby. Roberts was paroled in May 1987 after serving approximately thirteen years for aggravated robbery. Andrews was sentenced to death and is awaiting execution on death row at the Utah state prison. Selby was executed 28 August 1988.
5. Bill Hickman, Brigham’s Destroying Angel: Being the Life Confessions and Startling Disclosures of the Notorious Bill Hickman, The Danite Chief of Utah (Salt Lake City: Shepard Publishing Company, 1904), 75-80.