Encyclopedia of Murder & Execution in the Wild West
by R. Michael Wilson, Stagecoach Books (an imprint of RaMA Press), Las Vegas, Nev., 2006, $27.95 paperback.
Composing a list of everyone who was ever executed in the Wild West would seemingly be a lifetime task, possibly an impossible task for any mortal historian. The main stumbling block would be all the men (and a few women) who were strung up illegally by lynch mobs and vigilante committees. Well, R. Michael Wilson has narrowed the field somewhat by concentrating only on the legal executions that took place in 10 Western states (all were territories before becoming states) from 1859 until 1912. Left out of this particular work are legal executions that occurred in such trans-Mississippi locations as California, Oregon, Washington, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Minnesota, Iowa, Arkansas and Louisiana. That made Wilson’s task manageable but still quite a challenge, as suggested by the execution body count (282) and the book’s page count (632)—this is more than a mere listing; the executions and the crimes behind them are detailed.
Wilson deals with Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico—a considerably narrower geographic definition of the Wild West than those found in many other publications, including Wild West Magazine. Of those 282 people who met their death at the hands of legal executioners in those 10 locations, only two were women, and 11 were shot rather than hanged. Three methods of hanging were used, writes Wilson, and the breakdown went like this: three men and one woman died by the crude “rope and limb”; 213 men and one woman dropped to their deaths in trapdoor gallows; and 53 men died through the Brooklyn plan, or “twitch-up” gallows. Those gallows, the author explains, “used a heavy weight or counter-poise attached to one end of the hangman’s rope and when the weight was dropped the condemned man was jerked up with such suddenness that his vertebrae [were] dislocated.”
The folks who were executed appear in alphabetically arranged entries in the main text. But if the criminal’s name is not known, there are other ways to get to a certain crime. The table of contents lists the executions by state (and by date under each state), and in the back is a “Victim Index.” On April 7, 1859, in what became Colorado, German rancher John Stoefel was hanged from a tree after he was found guilty of murdering a brother-in-law. That’s the earliest of the executions found in this volume. The three latest executions included were carried out in 1911. A scattering of mug shots and other black-andwhite illustrations accompany the text, which devotes 14 pages to crime and punishment in general while also raising a few questions about the death penalty.
Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.