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The Online Version
of the Magazine
of Cornell Law School

 

Spring 2010

 

Volume 36, No 1

Headlines from Newspapers
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Table of Contents  Featured Article

1888: The Last Hanging in New York State

by Thomas Adcock

 

Oscar F. Beckwith died at the end of a rope in the blustery mid-morning of March 1, 1888, six years after killing his partner in a hapless gold mining venture—and allegedly eating him—whereupon he fled to Canada.

The “Cannibal of Austerlitz,” as the media tagged him, was the last man hanged in New York State. At age seventy-eight, he was also the oldest.

Beckwith’s family history, according to his attorney, Levi Longley of Kinderhook, New York, was one of estrangement, poverty and, often, insanity. Beckwith fit the pattern by first abandoning a wife and young daughter in western Massachusetts, then walking to Illinois in search of undetermined riches. During this long journey, so read the citizens of Hudson, Beckwith sustained himself by feeding on Indian women. Also, the notion of a deep vein of gold on the slope of a hill back in eastern New York somehow crept into his mind.

According to the statement of facts accompanying a January 1888 decision by the New York Court of Appeals:

The partners were at odds, with Beckwith mulling a lawsuit against Vandercook, whom he accused of cheating him out of revenues from the sale of timber rights to failed mine property. On the morning of his death, Vandercook was seen walking uphill toward Beckwith’s cabin. When Vandercook was late in returning to his own rented room in a house downhill and to the east, his landlord went searching. The landlord detected what “smelt like burning” from the interior of Beckwith’s cabin, and “therein found Beckwith tending a large fire in his stove… from which came…a sizzling noise.” Beckwith explained that he was “burning pork rinds and was preparing to bake” and that Vandercook had left, departing down the western side of the hill toward Green River.

That same night, the landlord enlisted the sheriff’s help in returning to the cabin. Beckwith was missing. So were parts of a disemboweled corpse: portions of a skull, fingers, and feet were found among ashes inside the cook stove, along with charred human organs in a skillet on top.

Nowhere in legal briefs or court transcripts is cannibalism mentioned.

Nick Biggs and Dick Cartwright, contemporary historians who live near Austerlitz, believe in a more prosaic drama: after furious physical combat with Vandercook, a man half his age, a frightened Beckwith tried burning the evidence of crime before giving up on such impossible labor and fleeing to Canada.

To empanel a dispassionate jury for Beckwith’s trial on the charge of first-degree, premeditated homicide, one hundred forty-six men shuffled through voir dire proceedings in the Hudson court. In a succession of appeals, retrials, and “lunacy hearings,” Beckwith was sentenced to death six times for the axe murder of Simon A. Vandercook, his young partner in a corporation formed to extract a vast fortune from an Austerlitz hillside that would ultimately yield only pyrites (fool’s gold).

The jurisprudential odyssey involved twenty judges, only one of whom believed that Beckwith’s crime merited a lesser charge.

Beckwith’s public execution occurred in the county seat of Hudson, in a flowered court-yard adjacent to the Sheriff’s Office and Jail (current quarters of the Register-Star newspaper). Vile though the prisoner was—widely read chapbooks peddled by itinerant “journalists” described the killer’s fondness for human flesh, especially that of Native American females—the sheriff decreed that his hanging should be a mercifully quick act of justice.

Accordingly, a state-of-the-art gallows was transported in parts by train from New York City, a hundred miles downriver, and reassembled in Hudson. The contraption was guaranteed by its manufacturer to snap a man’s neck almost instantly.

It took eighteen minutes of twisting in the wind before the prisoner expired.


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