Capital Punishment History

A Historical Perspective

The earliest recorded Maryland execution took place on October 22, 1773, when four convict servants were hanged at Frederick for slitting the throat of their master, Archibald Hoffman (VIRGINIA GAZETTE. 26 July 1773 and BOSTON NEWSLETTER. 26 November 1773).

The first description of a Maryland execution came from John Duncan, a visitor to Baltimore in 1818, who witnessed the hanging of two mail robbers from outside the prison court yard along with numerous other spectators: "I had in my pocket a small perspective glass which I offered to two young ladies who happened to stand near me; they seemed quite pleased with the accommodation and continued to use it alternately till the whole melancholy scene was over. The bodies on being cut down were immediately buried in the corner of the prison yard." (Travels through the U.S. and Canada, 1823, I, 232). Hangings remained public spectacles throughout the nineteenth century, carried out in the counties where those condemned were convicted.

But during this time sentiment against public executions was growing. The first indoor hanging took place at the Baltimore City Jail in January of 1913, with only official witnesses admitted (Evening SUN, 1 January 1913). Beginning in 1923, in accordance with state law, all executions in Maryland were carried out privately inside the Penitentiary. The first person hanged there was a 21-year-old man from Somerset County named George Chelton, on June 8, 1923, for rape. Over the next 34 years, 75 men stepped onto the gallows, with 12 double and two triple hangings taking place.

As a representative of the press, H. L. Mencken witnessed nine hangings, including that of convicted murderer Richard Resse Whittemore on August 13, 1926. His clinical and graphic account appeared in the Evening SUN on August 16th and also in A Mencken Chrestomathy (1949).

Not every hanging was noticed by the newspapers, but at least one proved different enough to be written up by the NEWS on January 30, 1930. Shortly after midnight, Jack Johnson, a 56-year-old man convicted of double murder, dropped through the trap, but the rope broke. His limp form was quickly placed on a stretcher and carried up on the scaffold where his neck was put into a fresh noose. With Johnson still supported by the stretcher, the trap was sprung again, and he was pronounced dead shortly after. The last to be hanged was a 32-year-old man named William C. Thomas on June 10, 1955, for rape and murder.

Thereafter, four executions have taken place by asphyxiation in the Penitentiary's gas chamber, believed to be a more humane way of putting a person to death than hanging. The last execution by lethal gas occurred on June 9, 1961, the condemned man being Nathaniel Lipscomb, a 33-year-old man from Baltimore City, convicted of rape and murder.

Changes to Maryland's Death Penalty statute, enacted on March 25, 1994 altered the manner in which the punishment of death is carried out, providing for lethal injection, now regarded as the most humane method of execution. First used in Texas on December 7, 1982, it now is used by over 30 of the 38 states where capital punishment is legal. Maryland's first execution by lethal injection occurred on May 17, 1994, the condemned man being John F. Thanos, convicted of the slaying of two individuals in 1990.

Wallace Shugg
Maryland Penitentiary Historian