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Execution of George C. Hersey



The extreme penalty of the law for the crime of murder was executed upon George C. Hersey, in the Jail in this town, on Friday, August 8th, 1862. Although the circumstances of the murder are doubtless familiar to most of our readers, we propose to give a brief and succinct statement of the leading facts most of our readers, we prepose to give a brief and succinct statement of the leading facts, most of which are compiled from the excellent report of the case in the Boston Journal.

On the 3rd of May, 1860, Betsey Frances Tirrell, daughter of Wilson Tirrell of South Weymouth, died suddenly after a brief illness of half an hour, during which she spoke but once, under very extraordinary circumstances. Hersey, who was employed in the shoe business in Weymouth, had been engaged to a sister of the deceased, (Mary,) who had died the previous January, and after her death, at the invitation of her parents had become an inmate of their household.

An intimacy sprung up between Hersey and Frances, which continued until shortly before her death. The peculiar circumstances of her death led to autopsy, which revealed that the deceased was pregnant. A further examination of the stomach and intestines by analytical chemists disclosed a large quantity of strychnine, the undoubted cause of death. Various suspicious circumstances, which were brought out at the trial, implicated Hersey in the crime, and he was arrested on the 12th of May at his father's house, Hingham Great Plain.

He was examined May 31, committed to jail June 2d, to wait the action of the Grand Jury, a true bill was found against him in the following October; he was remanded to jail, and remained there until May 28, 1861, when his trial was commenced, continuing four days. He was defended by Elihu C. Baker and George S. Sullivan, Esqs., of Boston, who undertook the case in the face of a powerful prejudice against the prisoner which arose after his examination, and conducted it with great skill, giving the accused every benefit of the law, but the proof was too overwhelming, and he was convicted.

After the developments in the case of Frances, the peculiar circumstances of the sudden death of her sister Mary were called to mild, and foul play in her case began to be suspected. Mary died on the 2nd day of January 1860, and her body was exhumed twelve days after the death of Frances, an autopsy took place, the stomach & intestines were examined by Dr. A. A. Hayes, who ascertained conclusively the presence of corrosive sublimate. In view of the progress of Hersey's trial for the other offense, no further action was taken by the Coroner's Jury.

The fact was also recalled that Hersey was married January 19, 1857, to a young lady eighteen years of age. She died the February 7th following, having been brought to child being prematurely without living issue. Her symptoms were the same as those of Mary and Betsey Frances Tirrell. She was taken in the evening with convulsions and spasms, and died the following morning.

After the result of the investigations in the cases of Mary and Frances became known, and the recollection of his marriage revived, the horrible suspicion was entertained -- which for the sake of our common humanity we could wish was not just that Hersey had been guilty of triple murder; and it was thought that avenging justice had at length overtaken him, for his inhuman crimes.

The belief of his guilt prevailed among those who have been familiar with the facts, and the annals of crime must be searched in vain to find in the civilized world a man so lost to religion, so hardened ill heart, who has added to the crime of seduction the terrible sin of murder, and who after gaining the heart's affection of unsuspecting woman, has cruelly slain the victims of misplaced confidence and love.

More than two years have passed since Hersey was first imprisoned on tile charge of murder. He has maintained a calm and quiet manner until within a few days since his first incarceration. He has eaten heartily and slept well, but has manifested no desire to talk upon matters pertaining to himself or the position in which he has been placed. In his conversation on spiritual matters, lie has been given to argument, and combated ideas advanced with Scriptural quotations, displaying considerable controversial ability. During his confinement he has manifested great interest in the war news, reading the papers and discussing the various events of the conflict. Thursday morning he read the paper attentively.

The prisoner was visited by friends and acquaintances occasionally until within a few days of the end. His father, mother and married sister visited two months ago, the only time he has been visited by his father and mother. His brother had his last interview on Thursday. His mother-in-law has visited him frequently. On the same day he was visited by his counsel.

At the request of the acting chaplain of the prison, Rev. Dr. Nehemiah Adams of Boston, began a few months since to visit Mr. Hersey, who soon became interested in the efforts made for his good. The visits of this clergyman were continued till the Saturday preceding the execution, when Sheriff Thomas, in his own name and in that of Mr. Hersey, specially requested that Dr. Adams would go forward with the prisoner through the closing scenes.

Before leaving the cell on the morning of the execution, the prisoner was baptized by Dr. Adams in the presence of one of the keepers. He also expressed his sense of Sheriff Thomas' kindness to him throughout his long confinement to the close. Mr. Thomas very kindly assented to a proposition from the officiating clergyman that a young Christian friend from the Newton Theological Seminary (Mr. Rich), who had assisted him, should be permitted to spend the last night with him, which he did to Mr. Hersey's great satisfaction.

For the previous two nights the prisoner had not slept, and had partaken of scarcely any nourishment since Wednesday morning, and his physical system was much prostrated. As the dread hour of death drew near, the indifference he had so long manifested gave way, and especially Thursday, when the gallows was in process of erection and the sound of tile axe and hammer was borne to his ears, he wept bitterly. It seemed to be the first actual realization of his position.


The gallows was erected in the rotunda of the jail, about the center of the north side between the wings. It is the one on which Washington Goode, McGee and Dr. Webster were hung in Suffolk County. -- The rope was a small cord of Italian flax, not so large as the thumb of a man, which had been tested with a weight of 3400 pounds.

By cards of admission about three hundred persons obtained entrance to the rotunda, the balcony on three sides and a portion of the lower floor being occupied. The north balcony against which the scaffold stood, was kept clear, and also a space ten feet wide on all sides, the officers guarding the lines. The prisoners had all been previously removed to the upper part of the building, where they were placed under a proper guard. Among the spectators present, were Wardens Haynes of the Massachusetts, and Foss of the New Hampshire State Prisons; Sheriff Clarke and Deputies of Suffolk, District Attorney Harris, Charles Endicott of the Board of County Commissioners, John P. Healy of Boston, and others.

None of his relations were present.

At 15 minutes before 10 o'clock the signal of preparation was given, and the procession appeared ascending the steps from the basement of the east wing, Sheriff Thomas leading the way, followed by Deputies Rufus C. Wood and John T. Jordan; then came the condemned assisted by Dr. Adams on one side, and Mr. James Ball, Chief Officer of the Jail, on the other, and followed by Deputies A.B. Endicott and B.S. Farrington. Hersey appeared weak and pale, which was easily accounted for from the fact, that for several days he had taken very little nourishment, and had declined the use of any stimulants. His eyes were closed from the time of his leaving the cell, and were not opened during the proceedings. IIe was attired in a black coat and pants, and slate and white striped waistcoat.

After Hersey was seated on the trap, Sheriff Thomas advanced to the front of the platform, and in a clear and distinct voice, but with evident feeling, read the death warrant as follows:


To John W. Thomas, Sheriff of our County of Norfolk, Greeting.

Whereas, at a term of our Supreme Judicial Court, holden at Dedham, within and for the County of Norfolk, on the twenty-eight day of May, in the year one thousand eight hundred and sixty-one, by adjournment of the February Term then next preceding, to wit: of the term begun and holden at said Dedham, on tile third Tuesday of February in the same year, George C. Hersey late of Weymouth, in said County, was convicted of the crime of Murder in the First Degree. And whereas, at a term of our said Court, begun and holden at Dedham, in said County on the third Tuesday of February (being the eighteenth day of said month), in the year one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, the said George C. Hersey was, by our said Court, then and there sentenced for said crime to suffer the pains of death, by being hanged by the neck until he shall be dead, all of which, by an exemplification of the record of said Court, which we have caused to be hereunto annexed, doth to us fully appear.

We therefore command you, that upon Friday, the eight day of August, in the year one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, between the hours of eight and eleven o'clock before noon, of the same day, within the walls of the prison in said County, or within the enclosed yard of the prison of said County of Norfolk, agreeably to tile the provisions of the one hundred and seventy-fourth chapter of the General Statutes, you cause execution of the said sentence of our said Court, in all respects to be done and performed upon him the said George C. Hersey--for which this shall be your sufficient warrant.

Whereof, fail not at your peril, and make return of this Warrant, with your doings thereon, unto our Secretary's office within twenty days after you shall have executed the same.

Witness; His Excellency, John A. Andrew, our Governor, with the advice and consent of our council, and our seal hereunto affixed, at Boston, the eight day of April. in the year one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, and in the eighty-sixth year of the Independence of the United States of America.

John A. Andrew.

By His Excellency, the Governor, with the advise and consent of his Council.

Oliver Warner Secretary of the Commonwealth.

At the conclusion of the reading of the warrant, Rev Dr. Adams offered the following prayer in slow and solemn tones:


God of the spirits of all flesh; we have come to this dread hour and place in obedience to thy decree--"Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed."

While no atonement can save from the execution of this penalty, glory be to God in the highest that there is an atonement which saves from death and sin beyond the grave.

Lamb of God! who takest away the sin of the world! Thou hast tasted death for every man. Thou hast thyself been in this furnace. Thou art here to pity and save this our fellow man and fellow-sinner, who now turns his dying eye on thee. Remember the thief who died at thy side with faith in thee; and bestow the same grace on this departing soul, who here publicly confesses thee to be his accepted Redeemer. He has confessed and forsaken his sin; he acknowledges that it is God who has brought him to this hour for his transgression; he accepts his punishment, but he pleads thy promise, "Whoso confesseth and forsaketh his sin shall I find mercy." No merit has he to plead; he casts himself on him "who himself bore our sins in his own body on the tree."

Save him, for thy name's sake. Make him a monument to the praise of thy grace. Holy Spirit complete the work of redemption in him, and so make him meet for the holiness and happiness of heaven.

May his parents, brother and sisters, be remembered by Thee, be sustained under their load of distress, and by this sharp discipline be led to such preparation for heaven that the whole family may spent eternity together there. Let all his young friends and acquaintances lay his death to heart, "flee youthful lusts which war against the soul," and be prepared to meet him at tile judgment seat of Christ.

We beseech Thee, God of all grace and consolation, now to succor him; the Man of Calvary to remember him, the Holy Ghost, the Comforter, to calm his mind and fill him with the peace of God, which passeth all understanding. We leave him alone with Thee. Hide him under the shadow of Thy wings until these calamities be overpast. Open to him the everlasting doors of mercy; take him, Jesus, Savior of Sinners. Bring forth the best robe and put it on him, the robe of Thy righteousness. Say of him, This, my son, was dead, and is alive again; he was lost and is found. In Thy name we bid him farewell. Through abounding grace may he and we meet at last before Thee, to claim each of us that he himself owes most to the grace of God.

Sustain those on whom is laid the unwelcome but necessary duty of executing the law. With compassion in their hearts and with firmness may they use tile sword of justice in the name of God, remembering that they are in this the ministers of God.

Come and meet him, blessed Jesus, as he now comes to thee with this ascription upon his life. "Unto Him that loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and His Father, to Him be glory forever and ever. Amen.

During these proceedings Hersey breathed with much difficulty, drawing long, convulsive breaths. He was asked if he had anything to say, but he remained pale and quiet, with his eyes shut. His cravat was then removed by Mr. Ball, at whose request he stood up while the straps were being placed about his body, rising without assistance, but supported on each side while standing. A black robe, six feet long, was then placed upon his shoulders, concealing his entire body, and lying loose upon the drop; the noose was adjusted to his neck, with the knot under the left ear, and the black cap was drawn over his head, face and neck. All being ready, Sheriff Thomas said in a distinct and impressive voice: ---"In the presence of these witnesses and in obedience to the commands of this warrant, I now proceed to execute the extreme penalty of the law upon the body of George C. Hersey. May God have mercy on his soul" There was a momentary pause, when the Sheriff, stepped firmly upon the spring; the click of the bolt, the crash of the falling drop, and the involuntary exclamations of tile spectators were simultaneous. The black robed body fell about eight feet, the cord twanged, there was a momentary vibration, and tile body remained swinging to and fro, with the feet within twenty-four inches of the floor. There was a drawing up of tile legs and shoulders a few times, a few convulsive twitchings as the body swayed forward and backward, turning around. In four minutes after the trap fell there was a slight twitching of the head and the body several times, and movements of the muscles of the face were seen through tile cap. In eight minutes after the fall one of the physicians noticed a slight contraction of the muscles of the face, as if an attempt was made to breathe. There was undoubtedly no consciousness whatever after the first fall, the physicians concurring in tile opinion that before the cord ceased to vibrate total insensibility had ensued.

At eighteen minutes past ten o'clock, after the body had hung twenty-one minutes, the robe was removed, tile vest opened, and Dr. H.F. Aten, physician of the jail, Dr. Appleton Howe of Weymouth, Dr. Ira Allen of Roxbury, Dr. J.G. Arnold of Roxbury, Dr. H.E. Clapp of Wrentham, and Dr D.S. Fogg of Dedham, each in turn felt of the pulse and placed their ears to the heart, and at twenty-five minutes past ten pronounced him dead. The Sheriff then requested those present to retire, except the witnesses of tile execution required by law, officers, physicians, and representatives of the press. The physicians detected a vibratory motion of the muscles, a kind of tremor, at twenty-four minutes after tile drop. The body remained hanging for one hour, and was then taken down, and placed in a neat and plain coffin.

Another examination of the body was made by the physicians, tile cap and rope having been removed. The neck was not broken, though one of the side muscles was ruptured. The face unlike most cases was white, and the eyes and mouth slightly open.

Usually there is a purple suffusion, which subsides after a time. In this case tile long period, which the body hung, may have given time for this to have taken place. All motion of the heart had long ceased, and the prisoner was dead.

At 12 o'clock the body was taken in charge by Undertaker Samuel Curtis of Weymouth, by whom it was conveyed to Hingham, where funeral services were held at the house of the father of the deceased.

We know that we but express the universal feeling of all who have been ill any way connected with this case from the time of the arrest of Hersey until the body of the unfortunate man left the jail, in stating that the delicate, responsible and arduous duties which devolved upon Sheriff Thomas, were discharged with rare ability and fidelity, within the last few days of his life, Hersey bore the strongest testimony to the unvarying kindness with which he had been treated during his incarceration, and since his death, Dr. Adams has expressed in heart felt terms his appreciation of the uniform courtesy and kindness extended both to him and his unfortunate charge. The arrangements for the execution were all made with the greatest of care and were executed with remarkable precision.

The trying duties, which devolved upon Mr. James Ball, the efficient chief officer of the Jail, were also admirably performed. The following is the confession, which was drawn up by Rev. Dr. Adams on the morning of the execution, and signed by Hersey, in a clear and firm hand, within fifteen minutes of the time he was led forth to the scaffold.


DEDHAM, August 8, 1862.

I, George Canning Hersey, being now about to appear in the immediate presence of the All-seeing God and Judge, hereby declare in what respect I am guilty, and in what respect not guilty, in the matters which have been charged against me.

As to any act or even thought of procuring the death either of my wife or of Mary Tirrell, of both of which I have been suspected, I am wholly innocent, so help me God.

I hereby acknowledge that in the sight of God I am guilty of the death of Betsey Frances Tirrell, for which I was indicted, and for which I am now to suffer.

I hereby warn all young people, by my experience and fate, against the indulgence of lustful passions. These have brought me to my untimely end.

(Signed) George C. Hersey.

Dedham, August 8, 1862.

The foregoing was signed by Mr. Hersey in our presence, and declared by him to be his free act and deed, we witnessing his signature in the presence of each other.

(Signed) John W. Thomas,

Silas Binney,

James Ball.

With regard to the truth of this confession, the community seem to be about equally divided in opinion, many giving credence to the statement that he was only guilty of the murder of Betsey Frances Tirrell, whilst there are many who still believe that he was concerned in the murder of both his wife and Mary Tirrell. The mother of his wife, who frequently visited him at the Jail, always maintained her belief in his innocence with respect to the death of her daughter, although at that time a few persons were suspicious of his connection with the event.

Hersey was born in April 1833, at Hingham, where his parents still reside. In personal appearance he was about five feet eight inches tall, with dark bushy hair, black, piercing eyes, projecting eyebrows, a countenance of more than ordinary intelligence, and the manners of a well-bred gentleman. During the whole period of his confinement, more than two years, he conducted himself with the strictest propriety.

Thus has ended one of the most remarkable capital cases ever tried ill this or any other country. When all the circumstances of the murder are taken into consideration, it seems almost incredible that any man could, in cold blood, thus deprive of life those with whom he had been connected by the tenderest of ties, and that when the offence had been committed, he should seem to realize none of the pangs of remorse. -- It is a case, which must and ought to stand by itself as a marvel of benighted human nature.

In order to complete the record of the event, we give below a copy of the official return of the Sheriff:

NORFOLK, ss. Dedham, Aug. 8, 1862.

In obedience to tile commands in the within Warrant, and by virtue thereof, I this day, between the hours of eight and eleven in the forenoon, to wit: at nine o'clock and fifty-five minutes, A.M., of the said eight day of August, 1862, within the walls of the prison of the said County of Norfolk, and in the presence of the following named persons, being twelve reputable citizens and more, including a physician and surgeon, who were severally requested by me to be present, to wit; H.F. Aten, M.D., Ira Allen, M.D., Appleton Howe, M.D., D.S. Fogg, M.D., George J. Arnold, M.D., H.E. Clapp, M.D. , Charles E. Abbott, Erastus Worthington, Asa French, Geo. W. Deans, Edward Avery, Edward Potter, Silas Binney, Calvin F. Ellis, Phineas B. Smith, Jr., J.H.D. Blake, John Cox, Jr., Geo. W. Fisher, Chas. Endicott, Charles H. French, Samuel B. Noyes, Mirick P. Sumner, Fred B. Ely, A.W. Stetson, George Fuller, and Chas. H. Farrington, did cause the sentence of death named in said Warrant, convict of the crime of murder, by hanging him, the said George C. Hersey, by the neck, until he was dead, and that said sentence was then executed upon the said George C. Hersey, in accordance with the provision of the one hundred and seventy-fourth chapter of the General Statutes in all respects. I did also request tile presence of }toll. B.W. Harris, District Attorney, and Ezra W. Sampson, Esq., Clerk of the Courts in said County, to be present at tile execution herein named, informing them severally of the time arid place of when and wiLere the execution of said sentence would take place, and there were present at the execution of said sentence of death, Rev. Nehemiah Adams, D.D., Minister of the Gospel, and Hon. Elthu C. Baker and George S. Sullivan, counsel of said convict; I also informed the said George C. Hersey, that his relatives might be present at the execution, according to the provisions of the General Statutes of this Commonwealth, The following named persons, holding commissions under me as Deputy Sheriffs, were severally present, and assisted me it] the execution of the said Warrant: Rufus C. Wood, Augustus B. Endicott, John Robie, Valentine R. Coombs, John D. Bradlee, John T. Jordan, Bradford S. Farrington, George W. White, Jr., John B. Ingalls. And there were present by my order, as in my judgment, were necessary to insure preservation of order and decorum in and about said prison.

And at the request of a brother of the within named George C. Hersey, his body after death, was put into a coffin and delivered into the care and custody of Samuel Curtis of Weymouth, to be delivered to his relations in Hingham, for burial.

(Copy) John W. Thomas, Sheriff.