McVeigh’s Coming Execution Recalls Morbid 1937 Spectacle


They hanged Red Jackson at dawn.

The night before, this tiny town in the Ozark Mountains hummed with a gruesomely festive air: Bonfires crackled, drunks caroused, strangers thronged through the gravel streets. As the condemned man mounted the 14 steps of the gallows, hundreds pressed close to gawk. Those with passes watched from inside a wooden stockade built just for the occasion. Those without climbed trees for their view or whittled peepholes in the stockade fence.

At 6 a.m. on May 21, 1937, Jackson took one last look at the world. A black hood was lowered over his head. He raised his hands. “Well, be good, folks,” he called. A deputy slipped on the noose. The sheriff pulled a lever. The trapdoor Jackson had been standing on gave way and his body hurtled down, neck snapping.

That was the last public execution in the United States: the last time the government killed a convict before so large a crowd.

Already by 1937, officials in most states had concluded that official public hangings were not serving their intended purpose of warning the populace away from crime--and were, in fact, in danger of becoming a morbid form of entertainment. So they moved executions inside, to gas chambers and electric chairs, where they became somber, methodical events witnessed only by a few.

The May 16 execution of Timothy J. McVeigh is designed to be one of those modern deaths--quiet and meticulously planned. But in addition to the 30 or so witnesses who will be able to see into the execution chamber in Terre Haute, Ind., 300 of McVeigh’s victims and their relatives will be in Oklahoma City watching the lethal injection via closed-circuit TV. And 1,400 journalists will stand ready to report on the execution from tents on the prison grounds. That will make McVeigh’s death the most witnessed execution since Roscoe “Red” Jackson was hanged nearly 64 years ago for the murder of a traveling salesman.


The intense interest in McVeigh’s execution has some in Terre Haute buzzing, excited that their unassuming city of 100,000 will be host to international news. “It’s going to be crazy in this town,” said Debbie Walker, owner of a downtown tattoo parlor. “It’s the biggest thing here since Larry Bird,” the legendary basketball player from Indiana.

Walker has sold more than 200 T-shirts printed with the front page of a fake newspaper, The Hanging Times. While some complain about such souvenirs--a “moronic marketing venture” with “no redeeming value” that “demeans us all,” the Terre Haute Tribune Star editorialized--Walker is proud of her entrepreneurial moxie. “Somebody was going to do it, so we did,” she said.

There were no T-shirts on sale when Jackson was hanged. But after his body was cut from the gallows, onlookers rushed to grab strands of the rope. For years, the Galena courthouse displayed a piece of the noose behind glass, like a precious artwork.

(It vanished some years ago, apparently claimed as a personal souvenir by a descendant of the sheriff who presided over the hanging. That sheriff, by the way, took the gallows staircase home and showed it off as the last steps Red Jackson ever climbed.)

Like the Terre Haute Tribune Star of today, the Stone County News of 1937 grumbled that the public frenzy over a man’s death was unseemly. “While some [onlookers] conducted themselves in a way befitting the occasion, others considered it a time for merriment and made sort of a Roman holiday of it,” the News wrote.

Marie Tilden, now 76, well remembers the carnival atmosphere of the evening before the hanging. She had walked into town, barefoot as usual, and was horrified to find hundreds of strangers “celebrating like it was a festival.” That image has stuck with her all these years. So has the memory of an old man lying alone on the curb, hands behind his head, hat pulled over his face. It was Red Jackson’s father. He was waiting there, alone, for morning, for the hour his son would hang. “I felt so sorry for him,” Tilden said. “He was so solitary.”

Another Galena old-timer, Jack Jennings, recalled working his way through the crowd to a hole in the stockade fence at dawn the morning of the execution. Through the peephole he saw the condemned man mount the steps, saw the noose tighten--saw everything, in fact, but the body plunging 11 feet through the trapdoor to a shallow pit below the gallows.

Jennings, now 77, said the hanging he witnessed as a teenager didn’t affect him much. He didn’t talk about it afterward, and neither did anyone else he knew. Soon enough, though, he would be sent to Germany as a soldier in World War II. Soon enough he would see many men die much worse deaths. It is those horrors he is thinking of when he sits up straighter on his worn whitewashed porch and insists, voice suddenly crisp with conviction, that the execution of McVeigh--who killed 168 people when he bombed the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995--should not be broadcast, even on closed-circuit TV, even to the victims. “I don’t think they ought to see it. I don’t think anybody ought to see anybody die.”

Yet others in Galena regard public executions with some fondness.

Standing guard at Galena’s imposing new jail--one of the few modern buildings in this shriveled town of 400--sheriff’s Deputy John Clayton expressed nostalgia for the good old days. Fuming that McVeigh will have “too kind” a death--"they’re going to basically let him go to sleep"--Clayton argued that executions should be broadcast on national TV so everyone can see “what will happen to you if you get out of line.”

Less certain that capital punishment is a deterrent, former Stone County prosecutor Bill McCullah was nonetheless equally adamant that McVeigh’s death should be broadcast. “If it’s the government doing it, it’s the public’s right to know. If 50 or 250 victims can watch on closed circuit, Lord, why not the nation?”

Red Jackson himself might agree.

The evening before his execution, guards told him of a pending bill to transfer all executions to the state capital, where they would be carried out in a gas chamber before a few official witnesses. “From the viewpoint of the condemned man, that would be an improvement,” Jackson reportedly responded. Yet as crowds gathered outside the jail to await the spectacle of his neck in a noose, he added: “From the viewpoint of society, I think the example of a public hanging is better.”


McVeigh Execution

* When: May 16, 5 a.m. PDT

* Where: Terre Haute, Ind., federal penitentiary

* Witnesses: 10 victims of Oklahoma City bombing, 10 members of media, various prison personnel and government officials; other victims will watch on closed-circuit TV from Oklahoma City.

*The crime: In 1997, a jury convicted McVeigh of the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people.

Sources: Federal Bureau of Prisons; staff reports