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February 13, 1906: Minnesota’s last legal execution

The botched execution of William Williams caused renewed fervor against the death penalty.

William Williams
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Photograph of William Williams from the St. Paul Dispatch

On February 13, 1906, the state of Minnesota executed William Williams for murdering his lover. When his hanging went awry, newspapers broke state law to report the graphic story. The botched Williams execution caused renewed fervor against the death penalty. Williams was the last person legally executed by the state, and capital punishment was formally repealed in 1911.

Ten months earlier, on April 12, 1905, Williams argued with sixteen year old Johnny Keller and his mother Mary at their St. Paul home. Williams shot them during the exchange; Johnny died within twenty-four hours, and his mother died after eight days. Williams turned himself into the police immediately and confessed to the crimes.

During the winter and spring of that year, stories of murder splashed across the front pages of St. Paul newspapers. The trials of the two most sensational murderers, Edward Gottschalk and Williams, even overlapped by a day. Gottschalk was notorious because of the gruesome way he killed his victims, and because he committed suicide before he could be executed by the state. Williams’s murders were intriguing to readers because of his history with the victims.

Williams, a steamfitter from Cornwall, England, had met Johnny Keller in 1903, when they were both hospitalized for diphtheria. They quickly developed a romantic relationship. After they were released from the hospital, Keller joined Williams as he traveled across Minnesota and Manitoba, Canada looking for work.

Intimate relationships between male laborers, including men of different ages, were not unusual in the early twentieth century. But when Williams tried to bring Keller with him to Winnipeg for a third time, Keller’s parents became upset and Keller returned home to St. Paul. Williams had gone to St. Paul to confront them, but he swore that he did not mean to kill Johnny.

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Williams used “emotional insanity” as his defense, saying that alcohol and an argument made him temporarily insane. After hearing readings of his intimate letters with Johnny Keller, including one where Williams threatened the boy, the court rejected this claim. The jury found Williams guilty of first degree murder, which meant that he would be executed.

Many Minnesotans were opposed to capital punishment at the turn of the twentieth century, but the state legislature was not able to repeal it. Governor John A. Johnson was against capital punishment but said he would enforce the law. Williams was set to be hanged on February 13, 1906. As required by the John Day Smith law, passed in 1889, his execution would happen in the middle of the night, with no journalists present.

The 1889 law, named after its sponsor, Representative John Day Smith, was passed because Minnesota had a long history of rowdy executions, including executions by lynch mobs that worked outside of the legal system. By suppressing information about executions, the Smith law was supposed to keep the public calm when executions occurred.

But when Williams’s hanging was botched, the public did not stay calm. Ramsey County Sheriff Anton Miesen miscalculated how much rope was needed. The rope stretched, and Williams hit the floor of courthouse basement without breaking his neck. Three deputies had to pull the rope up to strangle Williams. Fourteen and a half minutes later, Williams was pronounced dead.

Newspapers reported the event in spite of the Smith law. A reporter for the St. Paul Daily News snuck into the execution and witnessed it firsthand. The botched hanging was gruesome, and the public was sympathetic to Williams. His story of love and heartbreak had been relatable, and he was brave in his final days.

The resulting outcry led to the end of the death penalty five years later. After Williams’s execution, consecutive Governors Johnson and A.O. Eberhart chose to commute all death sentences to life imprisonment. Also during that time, public opinion shifted: Minnesotans saw the death penalty as cruel following the Williams’ execution, and they began to see it as ineffective at deterring crime. In 1911, Representative George MacKenzie authored a bill, signed by Governor Eberhart, which finally abolished the penalty altogether. Although extra-legal lynchings continued to occur until 1920, there were no more legal executions in Minnesota.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.