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This County's Last Hanging

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on November 16, 1930


This County’s Last Hanging

By Howard Burba


     He strolled into Dayton in the early ‘seventies, a vagabond shoemaker, a bit of the flotsam and jetsam washed up by the waves of idleness that followed the Civil War.

     Here and there an odd job of cobbling provided him with the money necessary to keep body and soul together; always out of the pittance earned at the bench he salvaged a sufficient sum to keep his craving for strong drink satisfied.  Clothes, he had few nor cared for many.  Friends he was totally without.  A stranger in a strange land, uninvited and unwelcome, he existed and that was all.

     One day he drifted to the southern part of the city.  High on a hill sat an imposing building from which  he had been told, no man who hungered had yet been turned away.  He presented himself to the Brothers of Mary with a plea for employment, and since there was need for a cobbler at the boys’ school then operated by the order, he was put to work.

     For several months Harry Adams, breathing an atmosphere that was new and strange, felt the uplifting influences that were a part of the daily lives of the men who had given him shelter and a chance to earn his way.  He was never accepted as more than a nondescript—he showed no desire to be.  But he was paid fair wages, he was treated like a human being and he was getting along peacefully and contentedly --until a woman came into his life.

     Down at the foot of the hill from St. Mary’s academy, where Harry Adams pegged away at his cobbler’s bench, was a section known in that day as “Slidertown.”  It was a sore spot on the body of the otherwise proud and healthy community.  Here gathered the riff-raff of the entire town; here reveled in boisterous hilarity the only underworld that Dayton knew.  “Slidertown,” or that part of  S.Brown st. from along about Hickory st. to the Cash Register plant was composed largely of saloons, cheap and repulsive rooming houses and red-lighted residences beyond whose blinds reposed in stultified idleness members of the world’s oldest profession.  It was in one of these latter houses that Harry Adams met Lou Huffman.  She boasted proprietorship of the institution in which was housed, and which quickly became Harry Adams’ home.

     Seized with an infatuation for this woman in scarlet, Adams became acquainted with the habitutes of her house.  He likewise became her constant slave, accepting in return for his work about the resort a place at her table and the liquor she doled out to him when his craving for it became insistent.  He lost the interest of the good men on the hill, and packing his cobbling kit, he went into “Slidertown” to become one of its permanent pieces of driftwood.  He had reached the depths.

     To Lou Hoffman he told his life story.  Born in Petersburg, Va. on April 21, 1849, of hard-working and respected parents, he had learned the trade of shoemaking.  With the outbreak of the Civil War he enlisted in the Ninth Pennsylvania cavalry, and an honorable discharge revealed that he had served faithfully during the entire period of the unpleasantness.  Upon being discharged he drifted to St. Louis, where he started on a life of drinking and carousing, frequent brushes of the police of that city stamping him as an undesirable citizen in any community in which he might be.

     To those who frequented the saloons and red-light resorts of  “Slidertown,” however, Harry Adams was not rated as a dangerous man.  On the other hand his weakness earned him the pity of those who saw in him all that was base and low in human form.  But he did earn a reputation for sullenness and brutality, cowardice and cunning.  If he ever had a standard of living above that of the slums, it had been cut from under him the moment he made the acquaintance of Lou Huffman.

     On the morning of Feb. 13, 1876, Henry Mulharren, a veteran at the National Military Home applied for and received a pass entitling him to a brief vacation beyond the gates of the institution.  At the same time he was handed a pension voucher for $50, and this he proceeded to cash at the Home canteen.  He passed out of the Home grounds, boarded a street car for the city and a few hours later had made his way to “Slidertown."

     “Along in the late afternoon Mulharren visited the Huffman resort.  He was in the company of another veteran,, a man named Woodward.  They met Adams, and it was to him that Mulharren confided his desire to renew the acquaintance of one Jennie, Smith, an attache of the resort.  Mulharren produced the price of a round of drinks, and Adams proceeded to hunt up the Smith woman.  She was quickly located, and joined with Mulharren, Woodward, Adams and Lou Huffman in a drinking party.  The liquid refreshments running low, Mulharren produced his roll of bills and, even then beginning to show the effect of his indulgence, he tore off one, pitched it to Adams and ordered him to go to a nearby saloon and buy more liquor.

     Outlining his plan of campaign whereby he hoped to separate the veteran from the bankroll which had aroused his interest, Adams returned and saw to it that Mulharren’s glass was not permitted to stand idle.  He it was, too, who proposed a round of the saloons in the neighborhood, and it was his hand that reached for a hammer lying near the back door of the place as he passed out in company with Mulharren and Jennie Smith.  That his plans might in nowise be interfered with, he violently shoved Woodward back into the house, threatening him if he persisted in attempting to join the party.

     Several saloons were visited as night drew on.  At each Mulharren paid the bill.  The last place visited was one operated by a man named Swinehart, on Brown st.  Here Mulharren showed an inclination to become boisterous, and when the saloonist protested, Jennie Smith tried to persuade him to board a car and return to the Home.  His arm about her, Mulharren left the place and walked out onto the sidewalk.  Adams was following a few paces behind them. Weaving and stumbling, Mulharren made his way across the street, while the Smith woman started south on her return to the Huffman resort.  Adams, refusing to heed her plea to accompany her, rushed after Mulharren, following him into an alley running off of the east side of Brown between Oak and Union sts.  In a few moments he came hurrying back in the direction in which the Smith woman had gone, and under a street lamp on the corner he overtook her.  In one blood-covered hand he held the hammer he had picked up as he left his home—in the other was tightly clasped a roll of currency.

     “Take the hammer to my woman, then you’ll be as deep in the mud as I am,” screamed Adams as he proffered the instrument of death.

     “I’ve killed him!  Take it or I’ll kill you.  Remember, dead men tell no tales!”

     Within the hour Mulharren’s lifeless body had been found in a pool of blood, and Jennie Smith was sobbing out the above threat to police, who had connected Adams with the crime through his visit with Mulharren to the Swinehart saloon.  Even while the police were listening to her story Adams walked in a back door, and directly into the arms of the law.  He had made no attempt to escape.

     The Adams trial attracted considerable attention at the time, since crimes of the nature were not so common then as in a later generation.  While he strenuously denied the story told by Jennie Smith, attempting on the other hand to persuade the court that it was her own hand that struck the blows which killed Mulharren, evidence against him was overwhelming.  Attorneys appointed by the court, Messrs. Craighead and Nevin, attempted to save him through a lea of insanity.  They brought in witnesses who testified that Adams had “a crazy streak in him.”  One told of a day when, working about the garden at St. Mary’s academy, Adams espied a cat nearby.  Grasping it he swung it in the air, then dashed its brains out against a brick wall, laughing with glee as he tossed away the mutilated body of the little animal.  Others told of similar occurrences that had come under their surveillance.  But the verdict of guilty pronounced by the original jury was sustained even by the supreme court, to which the case was carried. 

     The date of the execution of Adams was set for June 15, 1877, at the hour of 1 o’clock in the morning.

     Up to that time it had been customary to execute each condemned prisoner in the county in which he was convicted.  The state had not discussed a law, then operative in a number of states, providing that all executions be held in the state penitentiary though it is worthy of note here that such a law was enacted but a short time after Harry Adams was hanged.  By reason of the passage of that law, Adams was the last man to be hanged in Montgomery co.  Several from this county have been executed since, but they were taken, as the new law required, to the state prison at Columbus.  And under the law all executions in the state were conducted on a permanent scaffold there until the old form of capital punishment was set aside for the electric chair.

     Executions were not a novelty in Montgomery co. in 1877.  In fact, a similar event had occurred in August of the previous year, when a man named Murphy was hanged.  The officials, sensing then the need of the gallows at an early date, since Adams had already committed his crime and was in the custody of the courts, permitted the machine of death to stand in a corridor on the third floor of the county jail.

     Adams showed little, if any, remorse when sentence of death was pronounced upon him.  He walked stolidly back to his cell in the jail, and his demeanor showed no change.  He had formed a liking for Harry O’Neill, his turnkey, and for Father Nichols, of the Brothers of Mary, the latter visiting him frequently during his incarceration and attempting to relieve his mental agony through such comforting scriptural counsel as Adams would accept.

     Aside from these two, Adams had no confidants.  But to neither of these did he confess anything more than complicity in the crime.  Always he protested his innocence, and always he was insistent that while he provided the hammer it was really Jennie Smith’s hand that struck down the soldier Mulharren.

     One day, shortly before the date set for the execution a neatly attired woman registered at the Philips house and a short time later sought permission at the county jail to talk to the condemned man.  It developed that she was Adams’ sister, from Boston, and that he also had other relatives living in the east.  None of them, aside from the sister, visited him at any time.  To her he made the request that his body be turned over to Father Nichols, who had promised to be present with him in his last moments on earth.  Father Nichols had consented to provide a Christian burial.

     On the evening of June 13 Adams was taken by Turnkey Harry O’Neill to the hospital ward.  En route it was necessary to pass directly alongside the scaffold, which had been standing then for 10 months on the north side of the third-floor corridor.  Adams glanced at the scaffold and appeared to be studying it intently.  But he did not hesitate in his walk to another part of the building, and if he felt a twinge of remorse his turnkey stated later that it was not evident.

     Late on the evening of the day of execution S. P. Batdorf, engineer at the jail, reported everything in readiness.  A new rope of cotton fibre, five-eights of an inch thick, had been provided, and this was knotted into place.  From police headquarters came an official announcement that a detachment of police under Capt. Amos Clark had been assigned to duty both inside and outside the jail during the execution.  The other officers serving on it were: John Madden, Peter Long, Daniel Breidenbach, Jules Ogier, Samuel Dickensheets and Thomas Harris.

     With the approach of darkness the street in front of the jail, and buildings opposite took on an air of activity.  Rapidly the crowd swelled until the street was massed with people, while heads protruded from every window in every nearby building.  Curiosity alone sufficed to bring an unusual outpouring, though each spectator knew that it would not be possible to gain entrance to the jail and witness the actual execution.  Newspaper men, however, were admitted, and they were here from as far west as Chicago and as far east as New York. Practically every leading newspaper of that day sent a representative to Dayton, since news-gathering agencies had not at that time been established, and events of this nature were considered of nation-wide interest.

     By midnight the office and corridors of the jail were well filled with spectators.  By 12:15 more than 30 persons were gathered within the walls, two-thirds of them being newspaper men.  A general but subdued conversation furnished the only sound to break the stillness as the clock above the sheriff’s desk ticked off the moments left on earth to Harry Adams.  Up around the scaffold, voices were hushed to a whisper as the rough agency of death was inspected.

     It is past the midnight hour—midway between midnight and the hour for the execution.  All are now looking anxiously for the expected moment.  Adams calls for the sheriff, Turnkey O’Neill, Father Nichols, and a few others who had befriended him, stating that he wanted to say farewell to them.  He also asked that the newspaper men be permitted to come to his cell.  To them he made the request that nothing be printed about his sister, “But I don’t care what you say about me, “ he added.  His request being assured in the nods of the newspaper men, he turned slowly to Turnkey O’Neill.  The death march was started toward the scaffold.

     Placed on the trap-door of the scaffold, with Sheriff Beebe and Turnkey O’Neill on one side and Father Nichols and Murphy on the other, Adams looked into the eyes of those assembled at the front of the gallows.  He was asked by Sheriff Beebe if he had anything to say:

     “Gentlemen, this is my last,”  he said, pausing to wet his lips with his tongue as he uttered the initial words. “I never knew what Christianity is.  I am not guilty.  Jennie Smith is guilty.  She killed him because I would not leave Lou Huffman and go with her.  Jennie Smith took $2.80 from him and I took the same amount.  Bill Hays is more to blame than  I.  She struck the blow with a sharp knife that she attempted to strike a woman with sometime before.  Capt. Clark and Officer Kelly testified to the truth.  William Grimes did not say a work of truth in my behalf, as it has been in The Journal and The Democrat.  I am only guilty as a pickpocket.  I was promised a pardon from the governor by Mr. Bickham as he said I was the greatest murdered in the country.

     “I have not flinched from time to time as the papers said.  I forgive them for saying it.”

     The words rasp, the breathing of the condemned man becomes labored.  His speech is incoherent and lost to the ears of the spectators as the sheriff moves as though to drop the black cap now resting on his brow.  But he regains his voice for the moment.

     “Hold up!  I want to get through what I have to say.  I believe in the Catholic church.  I only wish I had served God in the beginning as I have in the last six months.”

     He pauses and the sheriff reads the warrant.  As he concluded Adams mutters: “I want to thank Mr. Patterson and Sheriff Beebe but I am not guilty.”

     Good Father Nichols raises a hand with finger pointing aloft.  He reads the service, and as he finishes Adams’ body droops; he scarcely can stand upon his feet.  The cap is drawn over his face.  As it hides his view his voice continues, his lips framing words now barely audible:

     “My last word as I feel the rope is that Jennie Smith’s the murderess of the soldier Mulharren---”        The trap is sprung.  A body hurtles through space.  The hands of the clock point to 12:49.

Montgomery co.’s last legal hanging is over.