Maine: An Encyclopedia

Capital Punishment

was abolished in 1876, restored in 1883, and abolished again in 1887, although attempts to restore it have continued to the present. (Michigan was the first state to do so, in 1847.) Nevertheless, Maine has one of the lowest murder rates in the United States, while large “death penalty states” such as Texas and California have much higher rates. In 1901, Leonard D. Carver, State Librarian, provided this overview:

In the Code of Statutes enacted by the Legislature of Maine in 1821, the crimes of treason, murder, arson, rape, burglary and robbery were punishable with death. In 1829 the penalty for rape, burglary and robbery was reduced to imprisonment for life. In 1837 the law was further modified so that one convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged, should be confined in the State Prison a year and a day, before execution, and until a full record of the proceedings had been submitted to the executive, and until such time as the executive should issue his warrant ordering the execution.

In 1844 the law was further modified, requiring that all per-sons under sentence of death, should suffer solitary confinement and hard labor in the State Prison, until such sentence was carried into effect.

By the law of 1837, the execution of the death penalty was, in a measure, left to the discretion of the executive, since there was no limit of time within which he was, by law, compelled to issue his warrant of execution. The responsibility thus created, was so great and the sentiment against the death penalty so active and aggressive, that there was no execution in this State for nearly thirty years.

In 1867, Governor Joshua Chamberlain called the attention of the Legislature to the fact that there were ten persons under sentence of death, confined in the State Prison, one of whom had been there over twenty years. He suggested that the penalty be abolished, or the law so changed as to require the Governor to issue his warrant of execution within a time Certain and fixed. In 1869 a law was enacted requiring the Governor and Council to review the finding of the Court in cases of conviction and sentence of death, and commute, pardon or cause the prisoner to be executed within a certain length of time after the date of the original sentence.

In 1870 and again in 1874 the Governor entered his protest against the law of 1869, declaring his belief that it was unconstitutional, since it imposed juridical functions upon the executive department.

In 1875 the Legislature amended the law of 1869, so that the Governor was required to issue a warrant of execution within fifteen months of the date of sentence. In 1876 the death penalty was abolished altogether. In 1883 the death penalty for murder alone was re-established. In 1885 Governor Frederick Robie, referring to the death penalty remarked that there had been an unusual number of cold-blooded murders within the State during the two years last past, and that the change in the law relating to murder had not afforded the protection anticipated. In 1887 the death penalty was again abolished.

The strong minority opposed to the death penalty, had much to do with its non-enforcement from 1837 to 1867, and the enforcement of the law from the latter date until 1876 had more to do with its abolition; since the executions during this period awakened discussion and debate upon the subject, and brought the people face to face with their responsibility and duty in the matter. Prof. Upham of Bowdoin College and Rev. Sylvester Judd of Augusta, by their speeches and written arguments against capital punishment, created a deep seated and wide spread sentiment in the minds of the people against this mode of punishment. The Society of Friends within our State, were ever urging in their petitions to the Legislature, for the abolition of the death penalty. The sentiment of our people is now so strongly against capital punishment, that it may be safely assumed that it will never again be enacted in Maine.

The last hanging was on November 20, 1885 at the Maine State Prison in Thomaston. The victim was Daniel Wilkinson. However, the controversy that lead to its abolition in 1876 was based on a double hanging on March 6, 1873. There was serious doubt about the guilt of Lewis Wagner who protested his innocence to the end. A Prussian immigrant, he escaped custody only to be recaptured. John Gordon, the other person hanged at the same time, was carried to the gallows bleeding from a self-inflicted stab wound.

According to some who have research the matter, “There was no time to wash Gordon off and, consequently, he was covered with blood and groaning as the deputies held him in a sitting position on a soap box placed upon the trap. Wagner looked down . . . and said, ‘Poor Gordon, poor Gordon, you are almost gone.’ Wagner again protested his innocence and said that someday the guilty party would be found.”

The last double-hanging was on April 17, 1885 when two Italians, Carmine Santore and Raffaele Capone, were executed. Wilkinson was executed later that year in November, as noted above.

According to lore, New England had only one lynching – a kind of private capital punishment without trial.  That occured in Presque Isle on April 30, 1873 when a mob hanged Jim Cullen for killing a deputy sheriff.

Additional resources

A Legislative History of Capital Punishment in Maine: The Maine Statutes and Legislation from 1820 to the Present. Compiled by the staff of the Maine State Law and Legislative Reference Library.  2002.

Lynds, Jen. “‘Call Me Phin’ reprinted, tells of life in the County.” Bangor Daily News. (includes an account of the Jim Cullen Lynching)

“Maine Memo: Last Hanging At Thomaston.” Undated newspaper article quoting a letter from Allan L. Robbins, Warden” and “James A. MacCormick, Historian.” Maine State Archives.

Marsh, Kevin. “Whosoever Sheddeth Man’s Blood”: the interpretation, application, and abolition of Maine’s capital punishment laws, 1821-1887. 1999. (Thesis (M.A.) in History–University of Maine, 1999) [Orono, Me. University of Maine. Fogler Library. Special Collections.]

McDorr, Zac. “Louis Wagner one of the last to be executed in Maine.” The Coastal Journal. September 28, 2017. p.33.

Potter, L. F. The Murder of Granville Hayden [manuscript] [1873?] (Cataloger Note: Accompanied by: photocopies of 3 newspaper articles, Bangor Daily News, June 17, July 18, ? , 1965, by Oscar Nelder concerning the murder of Granville Hayden and lynching of Jim Cullen.) [University of Maine at Presque Isle. Library and Learning Resource Center]

Schriver, Edward, “Reluctant Hangman: The State of Maine and Capital Punishment, 1820-1887.”

Stevens, John Leavitt. Remarks of John L. Stevens: in the Senate of Maine, February 11 and 12, 1869 on an order instructing the Judiciary Committee to report a bill abolishing capital punishment. Stockholm: Central-Tryckerict. 1879.

Winslow, Dena Lynn. “They lynched Jim Cullen”: New England’s Only Lynching. 2000. (Thesis (Ph.D.) in History–University of Maine, 2000.)  [Orono, Me. University of Maine. Fogler Library. Special Collections.] Presque Isle, Me. Sleepy Hollow Publishing. 2005.

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This entry was last modified: November 09, 2017 03:26 AM

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