Meet former United States President Grover Cleveland. He held two non-consecutive terms as President (1885-1889 and 1893-1897), being both the 22nd and 24th President and the only President to hold non-consecutive terms. He’s also the only US President to personally execute his own citizens.
Before holding office as President, Cleveland was an Assistant District Attorney. His stepping stone to the ADA job was as Sheriff of Erie County, New York, and it’s his tenure there that’s interesting because New York was a death penalty State at that time. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that New York State took responsibility for executions. Hangings were normally done at County level and the County Sheriff was officially responsible.
Not many Sheriffs actually did the job themselves. It was perfectly normal for a Sheriff who didn’t want to perform executions themselves to pay one of their deputies to do that rather than accept the responsibility. American hangmen had already acquired a reputation, often well-deserved, of performing their duties with varying degrees of incompetence. Their other frequent defect was varying degrees of drunkenness. Putting this rather technical, precise job in the hands of a bungling drunkard led, not surprisingly, to cruel and prolonged suffering for the condemned. Instead of a quick jerk and broken neck, America’s hanged usually spent a good ten or fifteen minutes dancing what British sailors delightfully nicknamed ‘The hangman’s hornpipe.’ Cleveland, having a reasonable sense of propriety, chose to do the job himself rather than take that risk.
Neither of his two victims were of any note in themselves. Our interest lies not in them or their crimes, but in their executioner. The first of Cleveland’s gruesome twosome was Patrick Morrissey, a 28-year old Irishman with a combative nature and a taste for alcohol. This little cocktail proved as toxic as it could have been when he knifed his mother during a drunken argument. She died shortly afterward. After a brief trial and swift conviction the court decided her son would die as well. Enter Grover Cleveland, the ‘Buffalo Hangman.’
Morrissey was lodged at the Erie County Jail awaiting execution (New York didn’t have a purpose-built Death Row until the early 20th century). On September 6, 1872 he was brought from his cell into the jail yard. He was wearing a black robe, attended by three priests and escorted by the Sheriff’s deputies in case things turned ugly. Last in this grim procession was Sheriff Cleveland. Morrissey made his final prayer, his arms and legs were strapped tightly and the black hood and rope completed the preparations. Unusually for American hangmen, Cleveland not only gave him a quick death, but was also entirely sober while doing so. One down, one to go.
Cleveland’s other condemned man was Jack Gaffney. In May, 1872 Gaffney had also been on a drunken binge. While intoxicated he killed an acquaintance, Patrick Fabey. Gaffney had feigned insanity to avoid the death sentence, but neither the trial jjudge, appellate judges or the State Governor believed a word of his pretence. His places, both on the gallows and as a small, curious footnote in American political history, were assured. On Saint Valentine’s Day, 1873, a day when most New Yorkers were expressing their more tender and loving feelings towards each other, Patrick Gaffney was pondering his fate in his cell. Out in the prison yard, Sheriff Cleveland was oiling his trapdoors and tying his noose.
Again, it was unremarkable as executions go. Granted, the prison yard had to be heavily salted so the prisoner, priests and escort could make it from Gaffney’s cell without falling on the icy ground and injuring themselves (possibly seeming a somewhat unnecessary precaution from Gaffney’s perspective although I doubt he was amused by the irony), but the job went off as well as could be expected. Gaffney made a short speech asking for the forgiveness of those he’d wronged before being strapped, hooded, noosed and dropped. He died almost instantly.
Cleveland used his tenure as County Sheriff to move up the ladder to Assistant District Attorney, State Governor and, finally, President. Ironically, given that politicians tend towards firm law and order generally, and often the death penalty in particular, it was his having been a hangman that opponents used to try and bar him from the Presidency. If he’d refused to hang Morrissey and Gaffney then those same politicians might have called him spineless and too soft on crime to be a proper President. They’d probably have campaigned against him not for his past as a hangman, but for not having been one. But that’s politics for you.
So that’s Grover Cleveland, as competent a hangman as he was a President. And the only American ever to have been both.