Standing in the shadow of the hangman’s noose, the condemned man was asked if he had any last words. As a matter of fact, he did, and it was about his right to choose between being beheaded, shot or strung up.
Thomas H. Ferguson had thought about it along the mile or so from the county jail as he rode handcuffed and ankle-shackled in the same wagon with his coffin to the place of his impending demise. A small detachment of Utah militia, ordered out for the occasion by the governor, joined U.S. Marshal Peter K. Dotson and his deputy J.F. Stone, who, with Sheriff Robert T. Burton and City Marshal J.C. Little, formed the escort to Great Salt Lake City’s north bench where, a few hundred yards above South Temple and just east of City Creek Canyon, a temporary gallows had been constructed.
Officials, believing it was Utah Territory’s first execution under a “regular judicial sentence,” made every effort to have it done properly and with decorum. But memories were a little skewed in that respect. It was not the first legal execution in Utah. Five years earlier, two Goshute Indians — Long Hair and Antelope — were indicted on murder charges by a grand jury, convicted in district court after a trial in which they were represented by court-appointed counsel, and hanged near the Jordan River two weeks later with few spectators other than Lt. Col. Edward Jenner Steptoe and his detail of cavalry acting as official escort.
Now, as the grim procession wound its way to the place “prescribed by law,” it attracted a growing number of spectators who surrounded the scaffold to hear what the doomed man would say. There, for the better part of an hour, Ferguson, convicted of shooting his employer, Alexander Carpenter, in an argument, looked out over the 3,000 or so faces collected to watch his execution that autumn morning and told them just what he thought of his trial and sentencing.
The day was October 28, 1859, little more than a month after his arrest for the killing — the law did not drag its feet in those frontier times. But while swift justice may have been laudable in the eyes of many, Ferguson had encountered some other problems: the judge, for one. The Honorable Charles E. Sinclair, associate justice of the Territorial Supreme Court of Utah, he said (and most of the town agreed), was a drunk who had sentenced him to be executed on a Sunday.
Moreover, Ferguson complained, he had been deprived of his right under the law to choose the method of his execution. “I was tried by the statutes of Utah Territory which give a man the privilege of being shot, beheaded or hung, but was it given to me? No, it was not! All Judge Sinclair wanted was to sentence someone to be hung, then he was willing to leave the Territory, he had too much whiskey in his head to know what day he sentenced me to be executed on, and would not have known, if it had not been for the people of Utah laughing at him and telling him it would be on a Sunday. A nice judge to send to any country. I am not afraid to die, but I would have liked it better if I had had a fair trial; and I would have felt better if Governor Cumming had commuted my sentence to the penitentiary. I hope the next judge will be a temperate judge, capable of tending to business.”
Ferguson could not have known then, but his “last words,” delivered in a rambling half-hour more in desperation than purpose, may have been a record of sorts for gallows soliloquy. Having thus spoken his piece, the noose was adjusted around his neck, the knot snugged beneath and behind his ear, a cap pulled down to cover his face; and at thirty-eight minutes past noon, the executioner cut the rope securing the gallows’ trap. Thomas H. Ferguson, with a fall of several feet, was launched into eternity. He was pronounced dead a few minutes later and “immediately buried near the gallows.”
Public executions were the rule in Utah — as throughout most of the West — until well into the 1870s. John D. Lee of Mountain Meadow massacre infamy was in March 1877 shot by firing squad at the scene of his crime, the last prisoner in Utah to be executed in public. Most of the early executions were carried out by firing squad, a few by hanging, but no officially recorded beheadings, although Nelson Slater, an aggrieved California emigrant who spent the winter of 1850-51 in Great Salt Lake City, did claim another emigrant was pursued by the sheriff and two others who believed the stranger was part of the Illinois mob that assassinated Joseph Smith.
Slater, who published a whole catalog of complaints against the Mormon citizenry of Utah Territory once he was safely in California, said the posse “came up to [the emigrant], and without trial, judge, or jury, they cut off his head.” Presumably the perpetrators used Bowie knives to commit the heinous deed. Slater did not elaborate further.
It is true, however, that Utah law on the books in 1852 allowed those condemned to death their choice of the three — bullet, blade or rope. Because Utah’s death penalty punishment was predicated on strong Mormon feelings concerning the atonement of sins by shedding an offender’s blood, and execution by firing squad satisfied that contingency, the third alternative was erased when the laws were updated in 1878.
It seems more than coincidence the change in statutes did not come until after the death of Brigham Young in August 1877. He had been an unrelenting voice from the pulpit and in private arguing for the shedding of blood to atone for sins. At the same time, a law was written to provide for the elimination of public executions; specifying such punishments must be meted out within the walls or yard of a jail or some “convenient private place” in the district. This also appears to be a result of the Lee execution, in which the prisoner was transported in secrecy almost 100 miles by horse-drawn carriage for two days from the Fort Cameron post guard house on the outskirts of Beaver City in south central Utah to Mountain Meadow to be shot.
The San Jose Patriot, commenting in 1876 on Utah’s peculiar criminal law, remarked not on the option for beheading, but that “in capital convictions the culprit has the right to select the manner of the three methods,” namely, shot, hanged or decapitated. The California newspaper reflected that “although this favor is granted to criminals, they seldom take advantage of the statutory right, probably because in that solemn extremity human nature cares little for such preferences.” Thomas H. Ferguson’s last utterances on Earth that October day in 1859 proved otherwise.