In the basement of St. Paul's Ramsey County Jail 114 years ago next month, a trap door swung open and convicted killer William Williams, a rope cinched around his neck, fell through. The state of Minnesota was carrying out its 66th execution. And its last — unsurprisingly, considering how it turned out.
Williams had been found guilty of shooting to death a teenaged boy and the boy's mother. A county trial judge had ordered him “hanged by the neck until dead.”
After Williams plummeted, spectators gasped. Then one shouted, “He's on the floor!”
Sure enough. Sheriff Anton Miesen, who had attended a dinner party before the execution, had miscalculated the length of the rope. Williams' feet had indeed hit the ground and touched.
“(His) neck stretched four and one half inches and the rope nearly eight inches,” the St. Paul Daily News reported in spite of a state law at the time that prohibiting the publication of details of executions.
Three sheriff's deputies scrambled to the rope at the top of the gallows. They took turns pulling on it, hard, in order to lift Williams and strangle him. Nearly 15 minutes passed before a doctor, feeling Williams’ wrist for his fading pulse, finally pronounced him dead.
The horrific “botched hanging” was “one of the reasons leading to (Minnesota’s) abolition of the death penalty” in 1911, John D. Bessler, a lawyer and the author of “Legacy of Violence: Lynch Mobs and Executions in Minnesota,'' told the News Tribune Opinion page in an interview in 2006.
Minnesotans’ appetite for ultimate justice had been waning by then anyway, Bessler said. Executions had been moved from the public square at noon to the dank basements of jails at midnight. Restricting newspaper coverage also helped make them tolerable, with the masses unable to serve as witnesses.
While some shudder at the taking of a life to balance the loss of another, others struggle to sleep knowing a loved one's murderer still walks, eats, breathes, and does every little thing the vanquished never again will. So calls to reinstate the death penalty still swell up occasionally in Minnesota, including following the 2003 murder of University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin.
But legislation proposed in St. Paul has failed more than once. And perhaps Minnesota’s final execution — with its memories of a rope strung too long — has had something to do with it. The moment makes for a strong and lingering argument against eye-for-an-eye punishment.