Clark County history: The 'hanging holiday' of 1890

Edward Gallagher infamous as the only person ever 'legally hanged' in Clark County

By Stover E. Harger III, Columbian neighborhood news coordinator

Published:

 

State Hanging Dates

Clark County residents hanged for murder since 1904:

• Simon Brooks, 46, laborer. Died May 13, 1906.

• George E. Whitfield, 22, laborer. Died June 13, 1924.

• Luther Baker, 61, logger. Died March 29, 1929.

• Glenn R. Stringer, 24, laborer. Died May 19, 1936.

• Arley Ovoyd Lewis, 29, musician. Died Jan. 30, 1941.

• Utah E. Wilson, 22, laborer. Died Jan. 3, 1953.

• Turman G. Wilson, 26, barber. Died Jan. 3, 1953.

• John Richard Broderson, 34, mechanic. Died June 25, 1960.

• Westley Allan Dodd, 31, retail. Died Jan. 5, 1993.

The Washington State Department of Corrections execution list — from after 1901 when the state took over capital punishment duties from counties — can be found on the website.

Hangings still legal punishment in Washington

Washington and New Hampshire are the only states where hanging can still be used as punishment. While Washington leaves it up to death row inmates whether they will be killed through lethal injection or hanging, New Hampshire law states hanging is only an option if it is "impractical" to execute the convicted by injecting a deadly substance.

Since 1849, 110 criminals have been executed in Washington, 107 of those by hanging, according to "The Espy File," a database of U.S. executions starting in 1608. The other three were by lethal injection, the go-to form of capital punishment in the modern era.

Washington's first recorded "legal hanging" was of two Native Americans, Snoqualmie men named Quallahworst and Cussas, who were convicted of murder in 1849.

Of the only three legal U.S. hangings since 1965, two were in Washington: Vancouver serial child killer Westley Allan Dodd in 1993 and murderer Charles Rodman Campbell in 1994. Campbell, who killed two women and a child in Snohomish County, refused to choose how he would die. So the state went with its then-preferred method.

In 1996, the law changed to make lethal injection the state's standard. Hanging will now only be used if the condemned picks that option.

There haven't been any hangings in the United States since Delaware murderer Billy Bailey was executed in 1996.

But it could still happen in Washington — eight men are currently on death row. Washington State Penitentiary's execution chamber in Walla Walla is ready, the only spot killings can legally take place in the state since it took over capital punishment duties from the counties in 1901. The white-walled gallows room is nondescript, save two thick metal hooks affixed side-by-side to the ceiling above wooden trap doors.

"Our sensibilities have changed, but there's still that tiny part of our brain that's fascinated by that spectacle," said Pat Jollota, a former Vancouver City councilor and local historian. "Look at what we see on television every single night."

— Stover E. Harger III

During Vancouver's hanging holiday of 1890, witnesses said Edward Gallagher "fought like a demon" to avoid his doom.

The convicted murderer was calm when Clark County Sheriff M.J. Fleming led him from his cell that summer afternoon to the makeshift gallows erected just for him at the courthouse square.

Two hundred ticket-holders were invited by the sheriff, but on Friday, July 11, as many as 500 people — nearly 9 percent of Vancouver's population — cheerfully filled the dirt roads near 11th and Harney in morbid curiosity. A 45-by-80-foot stockade was built to shield the gallows, but that didn't stop the throngs from pouring in to witness the 27-year-old's miserable end.

It was a celebration of death.

Parents held their children in the air so they could get a clear view. Others peered through cracks in the barrier. A women sold peanuts 25 feet from the noose.

Father Schramm offered to pray, but Gallagher refused. He said he didn't believe he would die that day -- despite the bloodthirsty crowd before him, the $225 spent on his execution, the lawmen flanking his left and right.

Instead, with a "slickly idiotic smile," he apologized to the audience for his appearance and promised he would do better next time. He said "the soldiers" would save him.

Reality struck when his hands were bound. For three maniacal minutes, Gallagher swung his arms and kicked violently, knocking over the sheriff and his helpers. Seven men finally subdued him.

The death warrant was read, a black hood pulled over Gallagher's head and the noose tightened. Sheriff Fleming, who was paid $50 for the deed, gave the condemned man one more chance to confess to killing and robbing Lewis Marr, an old farmer found dead on his land in theLower Cascades area of Skamania County.

"Did you kill that man, or did you not? Now, answer," the sheriff said, according to newspaper accounts.

From beneath the black hood, Gallagher sneered his last words: "None of your damned business."

Fleming pulled a lever and Gallagher dropped seven feet through a trap door.

At that moment, a young girl pushed her way through the now-hushed crowd and sat on a bench, her eyes fixated on the dangling man as life left his body.

For 11 minutes, according to one newspaper account, she and the townspeople watched as Gallagher swung into infamy as the only man ever to be legally hanged in Clark County.

Violent start to a violent end

Nearly 120 years after his death, old newspapers and historical records contain few details about the life of Gallagher before the day he cemented his fate.

He claimed all along that a miscreant called "Snowball" was the one who shot the farmer on Nov. 9, 1889, and stole $2,000 that was hidden in his house. Marr's body was found in a nearby field, a bullet hole in his chest, buckshot in his shoulder and wounds on his head.

Gallagher was spotted with another man prowling the property the day of the murder. When he was arrested soon after, Gallagher was carrying part of the Christian Messenger newspaper. A wadded portion of that same edition was near the victim. Snowball, if he ever existed, was never found.

Skamania County had no jail, so Gallagher was sent to be held in a cell in the basement of Vancouver's old Clark County Courthouse, near where the current courthouse sits at 11th and Franklin streets.

Gallagher almost died before the law could kill him. A now-legendary fire blazed through the wooden courthouse on the night of Feb. 25, 1890, quickly engulfing the building. As flames spread, staff rushed to safety. Jailer Marion Fleming, the sheriff's son, ran back inside to free the five screaming prisoners trapped in steel cells. The inmates were pulled to safety one by one. Gallagher, the only one facing a murder charge, was the last to be rescued.

It took four hours of deliberation for a jury to convict him of first-degree murder on May 9. The next month, Gallagher was sentenced to die.

Public executions uncommon

Hanging was a common punishment when Gallagher was executed — the newly invented "electric chair" was first used one month later in New York — but not in burgeoning Clark County.

Such a savage spectacle in Vancouver might seem unthinkable today. Even in 1890, some were shocked that the town would embrace such wretchedness.

Washington had become a state just one year before, and the region was still teetering between its frontier past and more-civilized present.

"The days of public executions have gone by in civilized communities," the Vancouver Register wrote in an editorial two days before the hanging. "(But) It will do on the frontier."

Gallagher's legacy

After Gallagher's hanging, the crowd went about their day, some taking strands from the noose as souvenirs. Gallagher's body was cut down and covered with a quilt.

The Vancouver Register newspaper published a follow-up editorial condemning the display.

"The execution, as we said last week, should never have been made a public affair," the article read. "It is now conceded that we were right, and henceforth, public executions will not be tolerated in this city … it is a disgrace to our civilization."

Gallagher was unceremoniously buried in the potter's field section of Vancouver's Old City Cemetery, near the bones of pioneers whose names live on as streets and schools.

But Gallagher's legacy, as brandished on a historical marker placed in the 1990s over his once-unmarked grave, is his violent end. Four words on the gravestone sum up his life: "Died by legal hanging."


Stover E. Harger III: 360-735-4530; twitter.com/col_hoods; stover.harger@columbian.com.