Growing up in Ohio I knew seven U.S. presidents were born here and I knew from high school history class that Grover Cleveland was the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms. But, what I didn’t learn in history class was The Buffalo Hangman performed two executions during his three years as sheriff — apparently to save $20.
In 1870, Cleveland was elected sheriff of Erie County, New York. One of the responsibilities he had as sheriff was to make sure death sentences were carried out. Although not required to physically do the execution, (he could pay a deputy $10 to perform the task) for whatever reason Cleveland chose to be the one to open the trap door for two prisoners.
According to a New York Times article [pdf], dated Sept. 7, 1872, the first man Cleveland executed, by hanging, was Patrick Morrissey.
The rope was adjusted and the black cap drawn over his face, when the signal was given to the Sheriff, who sprung the trap at 12:05 o’clock.
The article continues saying that Morrissey died instantly. Although, the next few sentences seem to contradict the statement.
At eight minutes after dropping the pulse ceased, and at 12 minutes the heart ceased to beat, and life was pronounced extinct by the physicians.
Although the concept of a president as an executioner seems very unique, Morrissey’s story and crime unfortunately were not. Morrissey, who was born in Ireland, came to America as an infant with his parents. His introduction to a life of crime started at 11 when he spent six months in a detention center. By his late teens or early 20s, he was sentenced and served three years in prison for larceny.
At the age of 29, he was convicted of killing his widowed mother in her own home. Apparently around 2 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, Morrissey had drank a little too much and was inebriated. His mother was in the dining room using a carving knife to cut some meat she had cooked. An argument ensued, she order him to leave, he grabbed the knife and stabbed her in the chest. He did not attempt to escape, and was taken into police custody.
But drinking and violence must have run in the family, because at the trial, two of his sisters testified that their mother would get drunk, angry and that all the children had ‘marks of wounds’ received from their mother.
On the day of his death, Morrissey read a statement taking full responsibility for the crime, saying though he did not remember committing it and advised those present to avoid ‘intoxicating drinks and evil associates.’
Cleveland’s second and last execution was on Feb. 14, 1873 when John Gaffney was hanged — also for a murder conviction.