Possibly The Last in The Nation
GALENA, Mo. – Jack Jennings’ buddies beat him to the good perches in the trees. They could see over the temporary wall to the gallows on the courthouse lawn. He slipped through the crowd and found a narrow gap between two of the wall’s rough-cut oak planks. He held his ground. Jennings wasn’t about to miss Stone County’s first and only public hanging. Jennings was 14 when Roscoe “Red” Jackson was hanged at dawn on May 21, 1937, for murdering a traveling salesman for his car and $18. Several hundred witnesses were jammed inside the temporary stockade, built around the gallows, and many more people milled about the courthouse square.
Sheriff Isaiah H. Coin had issued about 400 written invitations to the hanging. Holding a pass was enough to get inside the 40-foot-square stockade. “I had an uncle who got in, but the kids weren’t allowed,” said Jennings, now 77. “I got my spot and could see them walk Red up the stairs and put the noose on him. Everybody got real quiet. The priest said some prayers and Red said something. They put the hood on him and I heard the crack of the trap door dropping. “Just like that, I couldn’t see him anymore. The crowd inside was just too big for me to see him go down.”
Nobody could have known it then, but they constituted the last big audience for an execution in the United States. There are some qualifiers – Owensboro, Ky., had hanged a man one year earlier without building a stockade to limit viewing – but two historians who have written books on the death penalty cited Jackson’s as the nation’s last public execution.
Watt Espy of Headland, Ala., who has cataloged 19,000 executions through colonial and United States history, is more circumspect. He said Owensboro can argue that its hanging could be viewed by anyone, and Galena can argue a later date and a large, general audience.”The one in Missouri certainly was the last to draw that large a crowd,” Espy said.
The old tale of Red Jackson is getting dusted off as Timothy McVeigh, the man who killed 168 people by blowing up a federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, awaits execution. About 250 survivors of the bombing and relatives of victims have expressed interest in witnessing McVeigh’s execution, which is scheduled for May 16 in the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. There will be some major differences with Red Jackson’s hanging. McVeigh is to be executed by lethal injection. Only the approved witnesses have a chance of getting inside the prison to see it, and they are likely to watch on closed-circuit television from another room. McVeigh wrote a letter in February to a newspaper in Oklahoma City urging that his death be broadcast on the television networks. “Hold a true public execution,” he wrote. The federal prison bosses aren’t about to oblige him.
No matter. If the historians are correct, his will be the most-witnessed execution since Jackson plunged 11 feet to his death on the temporary gallows in Galena.
Then and now, Galena is a small town. It is about 25 miles southwest of Springfield, Mo., built upon a hillside overlooking the James River, and has a population of about 400. A main line of the Union Pacific, formerly the Missouri Pacific, runs through town past the old depot. But the closest major highway is U.S. 65, 15 miles east on its way to Branson. Table Rock Lake is just to the south. Jennings lives three doors away from the quiet courthouse square. His contemporaries remember the boisterous crowds that gathered the evening before the execution, but Jennings is the only one left in town who can claim to have seen it.
Public executions were regular events during the first half of the nation’s history. In the 1890s, about 90 percent of all executions were held in the county in which the offense was committed – not in state prisons. That put arrangements into the hands of sheriffs, who could make them as public as they cared to. Some executions drew special excursion trains. But by the 1920s, states had taken over 90 percent of executions, said Robert M. Bohm, professor of criminology at the University of Central Florida and author of “Death Quest,” a textbook on capital punishment. Missouri followed suit in 1938, ordering that all executions be carried out in a gas chamber at the old Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City. In the same month as Jackson’s hanging, the Missouri Legislature passed a law ending hangings by county and moving the executions to Jefferson City. State Sen. Paul Jones of Kennett, who was repulsed by the “carnival and Roman holiday” atmosphere of executions in his native Bootheel, pushed for the change. Newspaper editorials of the time cited growing revulsion over public hangings.
Missouri first used its gas chamber to execute two murderers from Kansas City on March 4, 1938. It would be used 37 more times until 1965.
When Missouri resumed carrying out executions in 1989, it chose injection as the method. After holding one that year in the old penitentiary in Jefferson City, the state opened a new death chamber in the Potosi Correctional Center, where 46 executions have been carried out. And since 1938, only relatives of victims and small groups of selected official witnesses have viewed executions in Missouri. Bohm, the professor in Florida, said he believes there is substantial public support for making executions public again. But federal and state governments are strongly against the idea, and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons is working to ensure that nobody slips out of McVeigh’s execution with a videotape. “I think there would be a fair demand to see it on TV, but the government does not consider itself in the entertainment business,” Bohm said. “For many people, it’s just a matter of morbid curiosity, like going to a car race hoping to see a wreck. In some respects, human nature is fairly predictable.” It certainly was on the evening of May 20, 1937, when townsfolk and strangers packed the square in Galena. Marie Tilden went downtown that night with her parents and was amazed by the commotion. What she most remembers is the solitary older man who rested in the street, his head propped against the curb.
“It turned out to be Red Jackson’s dad,” said Tilden, 75, who still lives in Galena. “There were all these strangers having bonfires and ducking in and out of the taverns, and all I could think of that night was that little man with nobody talking to him.” One week later, the Stone County News said this: “One of the most disgusting things in connection with the execution was the attitude of some folks who came to Galena the evening before. While some of them conducted themselves in a way befitting the occasion, others considered it a time for merriment. . . .”Among the drunks who got locked up that night, said the News, was a visiting police officer.
Jay Pace of Galena, who was 5 years old back then, said his parents went down to the execution. Pace said he remembers that it was a big deal in town, something the adults didn’t think they should discuss around children. “I remember them saying they couldn’t believe that people were making such a carnival about such a gruesome thing,” said Pace. “But they never really told me why they went to it.” Jackson, 36 when he died, had been born to a respectable farm family near tiny Howards Ridge in Ozark County, 50 miles east of Galena. Andrew Jackson, his father, claimed to have been a great nephew of Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson of Virginia, hero of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
In the phrase of the time, Roscoe Jackson didn’t amount to much. He fathered four children and left his wife, drifted through odd jobs in the Oklahoma oil fields, did prison time on a weapons charge. He was hitchhiking to his parents’ farm on Aug. 1, 1934, when he got a ride from Pearl Bozarth, a traveling salesman from Evansville, Ind., who frequently conducted business from the old Majestic Hotel in downtown St. Louis. Bozarth, 53, had a business that made nutrients for chicken feed. That evening, he bought Jackson a meal and got him lodging at a travelers’ camp near Brownbranch, in Taney County. A farmer found Bozarth’s body on a roadside three days later. He had been shot twice in the back of his head. The trail led to Jackson, who was captured in Oklahoma. A change of venue moved the case from Taney County, which includes Branson, to neighboring Stone County. On Dec. 11, 1934, Jackson was convicted in a two-day trial in Galena and sentenced to death. He claimed during the trial that another man shot Bozarth, but confessed to Sheriff Coin a few days later and was baptized in the James River under heavy guard.
While in prison awaiting execution, Jackson took up the Catholic faith, a decision that bothered his Protestant father. (The Rev. Michael Ahern, a priest from Springfield, stood with Jackson at the gallows, but a Protestant minister conducted the burial.) On execution day, sheriff’s deputies opened the stockade to the witnesses well before dawn. Jack Jennings went down early with his uncle, Fred May, who had a pass. Jennings had staked his place at the stockade wall when Jackson was taken out of the courthouse shortly before 6 a.m. With Ahern leading, Jackson climbed the steps to the waiting Coin and the noose. Ahern and Jackson recited the Catholic Act of Contrition. With the noose around his neck, Jackson turned to the crowd and spoke calmly.
“Well now, folks, it’s not everybody that realizes what it takes to die. It’s easy when it comes accidental, but it’s not so easy when it comes gradual,” Jackson said. “Well, be good, folks.”
A deputy covered Jackson’s head with a black hood. At 6:04 a.m., Coin pushed a lever to drop the trap. Jackson’s neck snapped in the plunge. As his body was carried down the stairs, deputies cut pieces of the rope and tossed them into the crowd as souvenirs.
The Stone County Library, across from the courthouse in Galena, has a file of newspaper clippings from the execution, but there is no monument or plaque in the courthouse attesting to Red Jackson’s death. It will be mentioned, with pictures, in a book the local historical society is preparing for the county’s 150th anniversary. “Having the last public hanging is a matter of pride around the county, but people don’t talk about it much,” said Jay Pace, who is helping on the book. “A lot of the newer residents don’t even know about it. It’s become a footnote in our history.”
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The following story was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Everyday Magazine on Tuesday, March 20, 2001 (copyrighted, 2001).