William Williams (1877 St. Ives, Cornwall –
13 February 1906 Saint Paul, Minnesota) was the last person executed
by Minnesota. The circumstances of his execution helped lead to the
abolition of capital punishment in Minnesota.
Williams was a Cornish immigrant working as a miner
in Saint Paul, Minnesota. While hospitalized for diphtheria in 1904,
Williams befriended John Keller, a local teenager who was recovering
from the same disease. Williams and Keller developed a close
homosexual relationship. Over the next two years they boarded together
in St. Paul and took two trips to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada together.
Keller's father did not approve of the relationship, and told his son
that he was no longer permitted to travel with Williams. Johnny Keller
returned to live at his parents' house.
In 1905, Williams had sent Keller a number of
letters expressing love for him and requesting that Keller join him in
Winnipeg; however, the letters went unanswered at Mr. and Mrs.
Keller's insistence. Williams returned to Saint Paul in April 1905 and
in a fit of rage shot and killed Johnny Keller and his mother at their
house. Johnny Keller was killed instantly when he was shot in the back
of the head in his bed and his mother died from her injuries a week
later. Johnny Keller's father was not at home at the time of the
Williams was arrested and tried for premeditated
murder, pleading not guilty by reason of "emotional insanity". His
defence was rejected and on 19 May 1905, Williams was convicted of the
murder of Johnny Keller. Williams was sentenced to death by hanging.
On 8 December 1905, the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the
conviction and sentence. One judge dissented in the judgment, arguing
that Williams's crime bore the signs of a crime of passion and
therefore may have not been premeditated.
On 13 February 1906, Williams's execution was
carried out in the basement of the Ramsey County Jail in Saint Paul.
However, the rope that was used to hang Williams was too long, and
when Williams hit the floor after dropping through the trap door on
the gallows, three police officers were required to hold Williams up
by the rope for over 14 minutes until he finally died of strangulation.
Williams's "botched" execution was used by
opponents of the death penalty in Minnesota to argue that capital
punishment should be abolished in the state. Minnesota abolished the
death penalty in 1911 and since then it has never been reinstated.
Botched hanging led state to halt executions
A small item in the Wednesday Feb. 7, 1906 edition
of the Minneapolis Tribune reads, "Sheriff Miesen has arranged to test
the rope and gallows upon which William Williams is to be executed
next Tuesday at midnight."
Ramsey County Sheriff Anton Miesen's test seems to
have been successful, but it didn't keep the execution of Williams at
12:31 a.m. on Feb. 13, 1906, from being a hideously botched affair
that resulted in him being the last person executed in Minnesota.
Williams was a 28-year-old British itinerant miner
and steamfitter. In 1904 he befriended young Johnny Keller when they
were both hospitalized with diphtheria. Keller subsequently roomed
with Williams in several places around St. Paul, and in the summer of
1904 they traveled together to Winnipeg, Manitoba. In 1905 Keller was
back home in St. Paul, and was receiving a mix of love letters and
threatening letters from Williams, who insisted the then 16-year-old
come back to Winnipeg with him.
On April 13, Williams was found in the Keller home
in St. Paul, smoking gun in hand, having shot Keller's mother and then
Johnny in the back of the head and neck as the teen lay in bed.
Keller's mother died a week later.
Despite Williams' defense of "emotional insanity,"
he was convicted on two counts of premeditated murder, which was
upheld on appeal.
Sheriff Miesen was confident of his rope's strength,
and the proper functioning of the trapdoor of his gallows, but his
math was faulty in calculating both the height of Williams and the
As the condemned man dropped, his feet hit the
A lurid description in the next day's issue of the
St. Paul Daily News said that William's "neck stretched four and one-half
inches and the rope nearly eight inches."
So deputies quickly grabbed the rope and pulled it
upward, then took turns holding Williams' feet off the ground for
almost 15 minutes while the life was choked out of him.
The death certificate stated that the cause of
death was strangulation.
The debacle, and the newspaper coverage of it, gave
ammunition to those in the state Legislature who opposed the death
House member George MacKenzie, R-Gaylord, had tried
to abolish capital punishment in Minnesota in 1905 and again in 1909.
He succeeded in 1911 when Republican Gov. Adolph Eberhart signed the
legislation into law.