The Last Legal Hanging in St. Louis County

This sketch of Charles Henderson appeared in the Duluth News Tribune during his trial. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Exceptional Circumstances

Two days later, an article in the Duluth News Tribune began: “Is it justifiable, morally and legally, for a man to kill his faithless wife?” It went on to say, “The principals in the tragedy are both colored, but colored people are human, and have hearts. All human hearts are capable of love and suffering through jealousy.”

Henderson was continuing to plead that his killing of Ida McCormack was justified—that his grief was “driving him mad,” and, by the way, he didn’t intend to kill her. “My God! I loved her too much for that. I expected to find my rival there. He was the man I wanted. But when I heard my darling talking about him I couldn’t help it. I suppose they will hang me, and I don’t care. I have nothing to live for now.”

The coroner announced that Ida McCormack had suffered ten stab wounds, any of which might have been fatal, plus several defensive cuts to her hands and palms. Curious citizens lined up at the coroner’s office to view McCormack’s body. The newspaper described them as “few friends, most colored,” and in the interest of dignity, the coroner soon closed the morgue to visitors.

Two weeks later, Henderson received his first family visitor at the jail, his sister Bessie Lapsley, of Philadelphia, who had been notified of her brother’s crime via a mailed news clipping. Her visit was covered by the press in breathless detail: “With tears running down her cheeks and her slight form shaking with sobs, Mrs. James H. Lapsley, a sister of Charles E. Henderson … descended the stairway from the second tier of cells at the county jail to the office after a brief interview with her brother.” (This jail, built in 1889, was located at Sixth Avenue East and East Third Street. It was replaced in 1923 with a new building at the Civic Center and demolished in 1954.)

She told the News Tribune, “I tried to be brave. I tried so hard not to cry or break down, but I couldn’t help it. It is too terrible. Ernest incarcerated here in this jail. I cannot understand it. He must have been crazy when he committed such a horrible crime.”

She shared that Charles had always been known as Ernest within the family, that he’d been raised in “as good a home as a young man could want,” was “worshiped” by his mother, and that his father had “died a maniac.”

I realize that the prejudice against our race will make it hard for Ernest, but he has lots of friends, and they will do all in their power to help him. None of the members of our family are rich, but what we have is Ernest’s.

She added that her sister, Mrs. Josephine Heard would join her in supporting their brother as soon as she was able. The newspaper also noted that Mrs. Lapsley, a former schoolteacher, was “bright and intelligent and from her manner of speech, evidently has had an excellent education.”

Though the local press printed many details about Henderson’s joviality, calm, and fervid religiosity while jailed, his family’s obvious middle-class status appeared to surprise Duluth reporters who wrote about them. Both sisters had in fact gone to college, taught school, and married well.

Henderson’s younger sister Bessie was married to a Philadelphia clerk, and their older sister Josephine Heard was a published poet married to a Reconstruction-era politician and theologian who had served under Grover Cleveland as the United States Minister Resident and Consul General to Liberia. Mrs. Heard had traveled widely with her husband, and was a prominent activist for racial uplift and advocate for the on-going “back to Africa” movement. One contemporary article in the African-American press placed her amongst a pantheon of female luminaries that included Ida B. Wells.

One of Josephine Heard’s poems, published in 1890, was titled “Heart Hungry.” The last two stanzas could have been about her brother in 1902:

Dost thy cold mate
That thou has chosen
Smile at thy fate
With glances frozen?
O, hungry heart
In shadow groping
Still act thy part
And go on hoping!
Thy fate invites thee
Kind or unkindly;
Thou art not free
Love loves e’er blindly
As thirsty meadow
Welcomes the dew
And as the shadow
Follows the true.

The Trial

No poetry or familial pathos could protect Charles Henderson from his fate, however. His trial began on September 15, 1902. His demeanor was reported to be confident, even cheerful. He attended his trial in a “natty new suit of black with a white turned-down collar and black tie, and his shoes were neatly polished. His face was cleanly shaven and his mustache curled.”

St. Louis county attorney John McClintock had some difficulty finding jurors who had not already formed an opinion on the defendant, but all said that the defendant’s race would not be a factor. One potential juror and Gnesen Township resident said, “A negro is just as good like anybody else,” a comment that caused a ripple of laughter in the courtroom.

Ida McCormack’s brother C. C. Parry took the stand to testify that his sister had been married twice—widowed once, and that her second husband still lived. She had never married Henderson, and Henderson had no reason to consider himself her husband. This point was argued thoroughly during the trial in order to clarify whether Henderson could argue justification. The trial ended on September 19. On the next evening, the jury came back with a guilty verdict.

Was Henderson a jealous husband who was acting under “exceptional circumstances,” i.e. acting out of justifiable jealousy? If accepted by the court, this idea could have saved Henderson from hanging for his crime; he would have been condemned to life in prison instead. During a lengthy plea to the judge during his sentencing, Henderson insisted that McCormack was his common-law wife, and that though she was “better off” where she was, he had been treated terribly by her:

I denied myself a home and all pleasures for her sake. I did everything in my power to make her happy. I even manicured her fingernails, waited on her…. Would I have been guilty of striking her down had I been in my right mind? I would not have gone to see her had she not sent for me. There is more behind this. I do not care to bring this out. I stand here today with a bullet wound in my breast that she placed there…. I never before committed a crime, I was never before in jail. The papers have painted me the blackest criminal in these parts. Be it in your power to have mercy on me, I will ask it of you.

Judge William Cant sentenced Henderson to die, citing the fact that the couple’s relationship was “wrongful and unlawful” and therefore the murder could not be considered as having occurred under “exceptional circumstances.”

The Execution

At the time of Henderson’s trial, capital punishment was on the way out in Minnesota. Many believed that the state board of pardons would commute Henderson’s sentence to life in prison. However, this effort was denied on February 1, 1903, and the way was cleared for the murderer’s execution by hanging.

In his final hours, Henderson received over 400 visitors, most of whom were strangers escorted quickly past him in his jail cell, where he sat with his sisters and a local minister. The hallway outside his cell was full of flowers and food. He wrote letters, prayed, and sang hymns. He joked with his jailers and the other prisoners, noting that he was glad his last day was a sunny one. He was good-humored to the last, even when measured for his coffin. His last two meals consisted of chicken and champagne.

Minnesota law, reacting to a circus-like atmosphere that accompanied previous executions, required after 1889 that executions occur “before the hour of sunrise,” indoors or within an enclosure that prevented uninvited observers, and restricted attendance. It also mandated that none of the observers be members of the media, and that newspapers not be allowed to print detailed descriptions of the execution scene. These mandates were often violated, possibly because ignoring them defied long-standing tradition and was punishable only as a misdemeanor.

St. Louis County Sheriff William W. Butchart followed the law by having the scaffold for Henderson’s execution built within Courtroom #1 of the 1883 St. Louis County Courthouse. The local press, however, violated the law and printed the story of Henderson’s hanging in feverish detail.

When he was escorted to the scaffold, constructed within courtroom number one, at 1:40 a.m., Henderson spoke for thirty minutes, with a single light bulb illuminating his face:

To you who gloat or are curious, I hope all are satisfied. The penalty I have paid will satisfy the law, but it will not satisfy all. I have no fear of death, but it is not my nerve. It is a trust in the Almighty God to whom I have given my soul. I have prayed to him to guide me when I drop through this trap to eternity. Upon those who were instrumental in securing my conviction I ask nothing but the blessings of God. I bear no malice.

The officers charged with conducting the execution were visibly disturbed, including Sheriff Butchart, who “twisted about uneasily,” grasping the beam from which hung the noose. When Henderson finished speaking, the condemned man handed a rose to each of the jailers at his sides, and they put a black cap over his head and a shroud about his body. In silence, the sheriff pulled the lever, and Henderson’s body shot downward with a thud.

Charles Ernest Lafayette Henderson was the only black man ever lawfully executed in Minnesota. He was the last person to die by capital punishment in St. Louis County. Minnesota abolished the death penalty in 1911.

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Story by Tony Dierckins. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Tony Dierckins.