Hanging

After spending two years in a Vermont prison, Mary Mabel Rogers (1883-1905) is hanged for killing her husband, Marcus Rogers, in 1902 — she takes 14 minutes to die. She was the last woman to be legally executed in Vermont.

BARRE — The three-ton granite monument measured eight feet high and three and a half feet wide at Sullivan and Sons’ stone shed in Barre. All that was required to complete the marker was carving the inscription. And then a letter arrived from the Catholic Church prohibiting the memorial from ever being erected in the Catholic cemetery at Hoosick Falls, New York.

“Stone,” a magazine for the granite trade noted, “The Messrs. Sullivan have just been notified by the Augustinian Fathers who control the cemetery that they will permit the erection of no monument over Mrs. Rogers grave while her body is in their cemetery. It is understood that this action is in part due to the wishes of Mrs. Rogers relatives who desire no permanent memorial of the unfortunate woman.”

So what happened?

In 1905 Rogers earned the dubious distinction of being the last woman hanged by the state of Vermont. While her arrest, imprisonment and trial for the murder of her husband Marcus made scandalous and lurid headlines in the nation’s newspapers, the accounts of her bungled execution prompted an outcry against capital punishment that resonated throughout the country.

This cause celebre roused passions on both sides of the debate and even prompted two anonymous donors from Brattleboro to commission Sullivan and Sons to carve a $2,000 monument to the memory of this perceived injustice. The monument was described in the Barre Daily Times.

“It is rough-faced with the exception of a large polished scroll extending from the top to the bottom. A spray of flowers, the handicraft of Gaeta Mai, a skilled carver, adorns the top of the monument. The manufacturers were awaiting the order to cut whatever inscription was desired when the letter was received from the Augustinian Fathers at Hoosick Falls.”

Rogers had been described as a “moral imbecile.” She was known to have caused the death of her 1-year old daughter through inattentiveness. Her promiscuous dalliances with men other than her husband allowed her to manipulate them into her illegal schemes including homicide on the banks of the Walloomsac River in Bennington.

On an August evening in 1902, it was her husband Marcus that Mary sought to kill. Beyond her immediate need to be free of their marriage, Marcus had just paid the premium on a life insurance policy that would result in a $500 benefit to Mary upon his death.

Persuading Leon Perham, one of her lovers, to help her, they lured Marcus to a picnic area on the river and, while Perham clutched his arms, Rogers held a chloroform-soaked rag to Marcus’ face until he was lifeless. Then they rolled him into the river. To a tree on the riverbank Rogers attached a fake suicide note that she had hastily crafted.

Shortly after Marcus’ body was found, she attempted to claim the insurance money but the preponderance of circumstantial evidence led to her arrest instead of a windfall.

Leon Perham also faced charges. Sensing the prevalence of evidence against them, Perham soon confessed, protesting that he was but a pawn in Rogers’ plan to murder her husband.

With Perham’s testimony, Rogers was summarily convicted and sentenced to be hanged. She was the second woman to face the gallows at Windsor prison, the first being Emeline Meaker, of Duxbury, who was executed on March 30, 1883.

Meaker had poisoned her young niece with strychnine and disposed of the body. At her execution, 125 spectators gathered to witness the hanging and the sheriff was besieged with requests for many more visitor passes.

The circumstances for Rogers’ hanging were very different. Perhaps it was Rogers’ pleasant demeanor; or the belief that she was somehow not responsible for her actions.

Many accounts describe her as below normal intelligence. Certainly, the murder she engineered was characterized by reckless and careless blunders.

Her libidinous nature followed her to Windsor prison.

During summer 1905, a scandal at the penitentiary resulted in an investigation that characterized activities there as “reprehensible.” The Barre Daily Times reported: “Shocking instances of immorality at the state prison are being brought out at the hearings being held by the special investigation commission.”

These incidents involved sexual relations between prison employees and prisoners, as well as relations between prisoners that had keys to each other’s cells.

One of the culprits was Rogers who was said to enjoy a sexual relationship with Vernon Rogers (no relation). In fact, the Randolph Herald reported that, “Vernon Rogers had access to Mrs. Rogers’ cell by means of a key which he had made in the shoe shop of the institution. Another prisoner, Oakes, also had access to her cell. Mrs. Rogers was delivered of a child after being in prison over a year.”

Despite the sensationalized reports of Mary Rogers’ murder of her husband and accounts of her scandalous behavior in prison, the notion of her execution evoked cries of dismay from many quarters. For most, it was the fact that she was a woman and somehow not responsible for her actions.

Interestingly, Emeline Meaker, received no sympathy because of her gender — perhaps because she had murdered a child. There was a vigorous outcry from those opposed to Rogers’ hanging.

Lloyd Clark, brother of Spanish-American war hero Admiral Charles Clark sent a telegram of protest to Gov. Charles James Bell, recalling the execution of Emeline Meaker: “Vermont is again threatened with the horrible disgrace of 22 years ago. The reputation and honor of the old Green Mountain State is in your hands alone and every true Vermonter believes in that highest justice that is the sister of mercy. Should this poor weak woman meet her doom on Friday in the state where my brother has been so greatly honored, please face his portrait to the wall.”

The governor was not moved by this or similar requests, reiterating that Rogers deserved swift retribution for her crime. However, the gallows had been twice erected, only to be dismantled when reprieves were granted.

A reporter for the Rutland Herald examined the installation in advance of the execution: “It is a massive affair, constructed of heavy oak and stands eight feet high from the platform to the top of the scaffold. The platform is ten feet long and eight feet wide. The trap is about two feet wide and the fall will be about six feet. When first made ready for the execution the gallows was painted black and given a coat of varnish. It has been kept in the prison attic, and will need no repairs. The rope is ¾ of an inch thick and is of strong hemp, capable of withstanding a heavy strain. The parts of the instrument of death are marked separately and can be put together in half an hour. The casket will be placed almost directly under the trap. The apparatus will be given a test December 6, two days before the hanging.”

Petitions were submitted to the governor, pleading with him to rescind the order for execution. He received tens of thousands of letters from around the nation, and felt compelled to visit the condemned woman at the prison.

An article in American Heritage noted that “the high sheriff and his four Windsor County deputies appealed to Bell not to force them to hang Rogers, but the governor had his duty as he saw it and said that if she didn’t hang, he would be unworthy to rest himself in Vermont ever again. Ultimately unmoved by the entreaties, Bell concluded, “if ever a woman should hang, Mary Rogers is that one.”

As the day for the hanging drew nigh, the journalistic clamor intensified with sensational reporting emanating from national newspapers, especially those owned by William Randolph Hearst.

William Hoster’s account in the San Francisco Examiner revealed that the execution occurred in “a frightfully bungled manner before a horrified crowd.”

“An imperfect strand of rope was used which, when subjected to the full weight of the woman’s body, stretched and sagged, her feet scraped the floor, her form doubled up spasmodically, and to put an end quick to the spectacle, three deputy sheriffs seized the rope and dragging the body free from the ground, held it suspended until life was extinct,” it noted.

Normally, the fall when the trap was sprung would break the condemned person’s neck and death would soon follow.

In this instance, according to Hoster, Rogers was slowly strangled while witnesses looked on in dismay for almost 15 minutes. Hoster was disgusted by the ribald laughter of the crowd outside which could be heard through the window. His graphic report of the execution fostered subsequent opposition to capital punishment.

However, Hoster was a proponent of “yellow journalism,” sensationalized accounts designed to sell newspapers rather than reveal the truth, and it is doubtful whether the hanging occurred in the disturbing manner that he described.

The St. Albans Messenger, complained about the out-of-state press for their sensationalized reporting of the execution.

The part taken by the so-called “yellow journals” of the great cities — to be specific, the papers owned by Hearst — in the case of Rogers deserves serious consideration at the hands of our people.

The editor then explained that just three Vermont reporters, and no other journalists, were allowed to witness the hanging — all of the out-of-state reporters were excluded.

In retaliation, explained the Messenger, the outside press corps fabricated their own stories. Interestingly, the editorial admitted that the rope-stretching incident was not fabricated, but offered no further details.

Ironically, specific censure was reserved for Eleanor Ames of the Boston American, the sole female reporter at the scene.

The Vergennes Enterprise noted that “she drank with the men, swore loudly, and conducted herself in a manner most unfeminine” – many of these same complaints had been lodged against Rogers.

During the more than 200 years that Vermont employed the death penalty, 27 executions were carried out. In the Green Mountain State, there was, from the first, a lack of enthusiasm for capital punishment.

As Randolph Roth asserts in his 1997 Vermont History article, prison sentences were the favored punishment for capital crimes. Perhaps this was because the history of executions in Vermont was fraught with missteps and tragedy.

The Boorn murder trial in 1812 was, perhaps, the first suggestion that a man could be unjustly sentenced to die. Just before the execution, the supposed murder victim returned to his hometown of Manchester, and the hanging was canceled. The case soon achieved the status of legend and became a cautionary tale of the unreliability of the legal system.

With a distaste for hanging swelling among the population of Vermont, Elroy Kent was scheduled to hang on Jan. 5, 1912. When the trap on the gallows was sprung, Kent fell to the floor, the rope having broken. Still alive, he was brought to the platform and hanged again. This time the rope held.

It is not difficult to see why the citizens of Vermont lost their appetite for executions.

Roth’s survey of capital punishment in the state attributes Vermont’s low crime rate to the abolition of the practice, but it is likely that the cruelty of botched hangings may have also led to the elimination of the death penalty. For years, capital punishment was reserved only for cases in which the perpetrator killed a law enforcement officer.

Finally, in 1987 the legislature put an end to the practice completely.

Paul Heller is a historian and writer who lives in Barre.

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