A love of violence plagues American society. Our kids watch rough sports like Football and Hockey. Then they play video games that make the Wild West look like something out of a Charlotte Bronte novel. Thinking about this made me long for the idyllic days where we didn’t have these vicious past times. I longed for a time in our recent past when parents and children could pack up a picnic basket. Together they could go on a family outing and watch the county hang somebody. This past mischief night at the Moorestown Library, local historian Marissa Bozarth allowed me to relive this halcyon era. She delivered a lecture on Burlington County (New Jersey) murders and executions that took place between 1832 and 1906.
Who would’ve thought people executed by the county could be so remarkable? On March 23, 1860 Philip Lynch met the hangman’s noose for the murder of George Coulter. Mr. Lynch’s behavior upon hearing the jury’s verdict was, well, not good. Following the pronouncement, he told the judge, prosecutor and sheriff that he would return from the grave to haunt them. (No evidence suggests that he ever did.)
While reassuring that Mr. Lynch believed in life after death, history would recall his reputation better had he followed the example of freed slave Eliza Freeman. In 1832, she earned the ignominious distinction of being the first person executed by Burlington County. When she murdered her husband, she showed no remorse. Her last words, however, displayed a much more respectable demeanor. She warned those who attended her execution against the dangers of alcohol. (Remember that. You’ll be reading about it again.) Then she prayed for her prison caretakers, all of the 3,000 – 5,000 people who attended her hanging as well as for her fellow African-Americans. Incidentally, the number of spectators fell well short of the 10,000 who watched Wesley Warner’s execution on 9/6/1894.
As only first degree murderers faced execution, Mr. Warner argued he committed second degree murder. Why did he murder Lizzie Peak? In essence, he claimed he didn’t kill her: his drunkenness did. The prosecutor convinced the jury that he “got drunk on purpose.” In an unusual occurrence for the 1890s, Warner appealed his sentence six times. They didn’t help. Fortunately, this didn’t drive him to drink.
Without comparison, I found Joel Clough the most intriguing person to meet the hangman’s noose in Burlington County. As difficult as this will be for readers to believe, he attended Ms. Freeman’s execution. Apparently, it impressed him so much that he decided to make the transition from audience member to participant. Following a tumultuous relationship with Mary Hamilton and an even harsher one with the bottle, Clough decided to permanently end his dealings with Ms. Hamilton on April 5, 1833. He returned a dagger she gave him as a gift by plunging it into her chest eight times. Following his arrest, he became the first person to ever escape from Mount Holly Prison. Cough didn’t excel at getting away from things. He unsuccessfully attempted suicide at one point, too.
During his trial, Clough tried to prove “temporary insanity” at the time of the murder. He even brought in experts on mental illness; something very unusual in the 1830s. In addition, he blamed his upbringing for leading him to kill. The jury didn’t agree. The county executed him on 7/26/33. For reasons that mystify me, he personally put on the hood and placed the rope around his neck.
The American spirit of innovation applied to some of these executions. Instead of having a door drop, the county used a 364 pound weight attached to a rope and cross beam on Philip Lynch. In 1907 the State of New Jersey took over the role of executing prisoners. In 1906, the county knew this would be its last time and decided to make it memorable. Deputies tied Rufus Johnson and George Small back-to-back and hanged them for the murder of Moorestown resident Florence Allinson.
In his play, Justice, John Galsworthy had a prison guard utter the prescient observation: “If it wasn’t for women and alcohol, this place would be empty.” The same observation could be made for many of the executions that took place in Burlington County between 1832 and 1906. The fascination with violence stood out more, though. The number of people who attended these executions in person boggles the mind. With that in mind, the voyeuristic violence in our society makes our era seem like the idyllic one.