The Sad Tale of James Murphy

Jan 31, 1875: Barlow Hall, which was located at the corner of Fifth Street and Pearl Street, hosted the wedding of August Scheckelhoff and Agnes Neehaber. August worked at The Champion Plow Work, along with Colonel William Dawson. Colonel Dawson volunteered to be the Master of Ceremonies for the wedding.

James Murphy, member of the notorious “chain-gang” and well-known hooligan, showed up with a few of his fellow gang members, wanting to get in. When Colonel Dawson turned them away at the door, they threatened him. Later that night, they attacked him. In the midst of the scuffle, Dawson was stabbed. He bled to death in the street before medical help could arrive.

Police could only find one clue, a cap near Dawson’s body. After a few hours, the cap led them to the home of James Murphy. Another man, Lewis Meyers, was arrested as an accomplice. The public was outraged; and the police had to get special guards to protect Murphy from a lynch mob. After his trial, Lewis Meyers was convicted of manslaughter, and sentenced to two years in prison. But James Murphy was tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang.

After Murphy’s conviction in April, there was a waiting period of 100 days before they could execute him. Waiting was torture. Murphy suffered so much, in fact, that Cincinnati Crime Journalist Lafcadio Hearn sympathized with him, changing from describing in his articles the heinous nature of his crime to describing the merciless way he had to wait on death row. Hearn felt that the one hundred days of mental torture coupled with his death more than paid the price of his crime.

During the last week of his life, Murphy confided in Sheriff Hellriggle:

“I knew I was going to be hanged, long ago. Do you know that I knew it before I was sentenced?”

Hellriggle asked how he could know such a thing, and Murphy described a night during the trial, between midnight and 1am. The sheriff remembered it well. Everyone was roused from sleep by the shrill and piercing wail of a woman carrying through the cells. The men were spooked, as there were no women in the building. Murphy told Hellriggle it was the spirit of his late mother, crying for him

Later that week, Murphy gave Sheriff Hellriggle a small knife he had been hiding away, planning to take his own life before his execution. Having found religion, he told the sheriff he decided instead to face his punishment, remarking, “though I were to be hung twice over.”

The behavior Murphy showed in his last few weeks on earth proved that he either was not the ruffian he was reputed to be, or that jail and the impending execution had changed him into a sensitive, thoughtful, and scared young man.

August 31, 1875: Execution day. Sheriff Gerard of Putnam County, having participated in five executions, was brought in as an expert. Although the rope was roughly the thickness of a clothes line, Gerard insisted upon its strength, stating that it had been well tested with heavy weights and a keg filled with nails. It had successfully suspended a bucket of water for 24 hours to remove the slight elasticity, thusly increasing the snap efficiency during the drop. To those who examined the rope before the execution, it only appeared to have weakened it.

On the morning of his death, James woke early and made a full confession in front of the sheriff. In his confession, he declared Lewis Meyers to be innocent of the crime charged to him. He then went to mass, visited with Father Murphy, a priest to whom he had become close, ate a light breakfast, and smoked several cigars. After writing out a full confession, detailing his crime and the roles and responsibilities of everyone involved, Murphy wrote a letter to the sheriff and his deputies, thanking them for their kindness during his time as a prisoner and for paying for his coffin.

When the time came to be walked to the gallows, Murphy was obedient and humble. Reports state that the audience was audibly surprised at his humble and handsome appearance as he made his way up to the stand. He made a speech stating that he alone was guilty of this crime, thanking the sheriff and deputies and his friends for their kindness once again, forgiving his enemies, and asking for forgiveness from those he wronged in his life. His parting words were a warning to young men who like to drink and keep bad company that this could be their fates as well. Murphy ended his speech stating, “I believe Jesus Christ will save me.”

The sheriff read him the death warrant, and as he was tying the noose around his neck, leaned in and whispered, “James Murphy, goodbye, and may God bless you!”

The sheriff took his place next to the trap door and pressed the lever. The three-and-a-half-foot drop-length was too much stress on the rope and the sheriff, along with everyone in attendance, was horrified to see the rope snap almost instantly, plummeting Murphy to the floor below, stunned and very much alive.

Reporter Hearn rushed to his side. Conscious and confused, Murphy groaned, trying to make sense of what just happened. A hush fell over the crowd as they waited to see what would ensue. The silence of the room and the darkness of the black cap placed over his head before the hanging led Murphy to believe that he had died. As the spectators started to sob, scream, and otherwise react to the sight before them, the truth dawned on him.

“Why, I ain’t dead—I ain’t dead!” said Murphy, agitated.
“Are you hurt, my child?” asked Father Murphy.
“No Father, I’m not dead; I’m not hurt. What are they going to do with me?”

In the midst of this chaos, another rope had been retrieved and was being set up to carry out the sentence. This rope was thin as well, so a double noose was made, ensuring it would work this time. After rushing to Murphy’s side, Hearn had grabbed his wrist to check for a pulse. He felt it quicken after Murphy slowly realized that he would be hanged again. The physician on site reported Murphy’s heart rate at 120 beats per minute.

“What’s the good of leaving me here in this misery?” Murphy cried. “Take me out of this, I tell you.”

As the deputies lifted Murphy up from his position on the floor, he cried out, “Don’t carry me. I can walk – let me walk.”

They carried him anyway, with Father Murphy supporting his head. He asked to see the light of day once more, so they pulled his mask off as they were setting up the noose, allowing the audience to see his terrified face. Panic set in, and he grabbed the shirt of the nearest deputy, Father Murphy whispered to him to die like a man, and Murphy let go.

It took less than seven minutes between the first attempt and the second. Everyone moved swiftly, and attempted to be as humane as possible, considering the situation. Once the trap door was set, they swiftly pulled the lever. It took seventeen minutes for Murphy to die from the second hanging. Once he was declared dead by the physician on site, his body was cut down and placed inside his coffin, finally at peace.

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