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The Ithaca Journal

Tuesday June 20, 1871


The Execution of Michael Ferguson for Murder.



Mike Ferguson, who has been incarcerated in our jail for a year and three months past was hung on Friday last at ten minutes to one o’clock. Thursday afternoon his sister was with him in the cell and his religious counselor, Dr. Strong, spent the greater part of the night with him. He talked freely and sometimes jokingly about his approaching end. His light manner was evidently put on to keep up his spirits; for at times he would break into a fit of despondency and then he would become serious and talk his case over and of the hope he had for the future world. He read in the Bible and made an attempt to sing some familiar hymns. During his imprisonment he had grown quite fond of reading, read much in the newspapers and mastered some small religious books, among which was Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. He compared his own imprisonment to that of Buyan, and said “On Friday I will leave Doubting Castle and go on my pilgrimage to the Celestial City.”

            Friday morning his two sisters were with him till 11 o’clock when they took final leave. This was his most trying moment; no other friend was as dear to him as the sister who visited him almost daily in his solitary life. He had written several times to his mother but she neither came to see him nor answered his letters. About 12 o’clock some companies of the 50th militia were stationed about the jail. Those who had received passes from Sheriff Root-in all about thirty-five, mostly representative of the press, physicians, and sheriffs-were admitted to the enclosed yard between the jail and court house, where the instrument of death was erected. It consisted of a horizontal beam six inches square erected some twelve feet high. Two pulleys were mortised into it about six feet apart over which the rope passed, one end being attached to a cast iron weight of 300 pounds. An upright box the height of the beam enclosed the height which rested on a small platform five or six feet from the ground. The platform was dropped by pressing a small lever against a spring. The gibbet was devised by Sheriff Root and did its horrid duty admirably. I had been previously tested with a bag of sand.

            At 12:30 religious services were held at the cell, Rev. O.H. Warren officiating. He read the 51st Psalm which he said Ferguson had taken much comfort from of late, also the latter part of the 8th chapter of Romans and a few appropriate verses from St. Luke. He then made some remarks on the solemnity of the occasion and the spiritual condition of the prisoner, saying that h gladly accepted the penalty of the law as just. During the prayer Ferguson kneeled with the ministers and joined in the Lord’s Prayer at the close. He then took leave of his brothers-in-law, the Sheriff and a few other friends. The rope, the same which hung Rulloff and two others before him, was placed around his neck and he was led out into the yard and took a chair under the jibbet while Ex-Sheriff Van Kirk read the death warrant. Sheriff Root then asked if he had anything to say white sentence should not now be executed. Dr. Strong replied in behalf of the prisoner that he had nothing to say and was ready and willing to give up his life that the majesty of the law might be vindicated. He returns thanks to Mr. Root and all who have befriended him in prison. He entertains no ill will toward any one and dies with the language of peace upon his lips. The execution that brings death here will bring him life in the next world. Dr. Strong then offered a short, fervent prayer, during which the poor victim calmly closed his eyes. His face as very pale and his body trembled slightly. He was made to stand up after the prayer and his arms were tied behind his back above the elbows, his legs strapped above and below the knees, and the rope adjusted with the knot just under the left ear. The Sheriff again said, “Ferguson, have you anything to say?” He replied quite hesitatingly and indistinctly, “I don’t know as I have.”  Dr. Strong and Rev. Warren then shook hands with him and said they hoped to meet him in Heaven. He looked around nervously and said in a distinct voice, “I bid you all farewell-take warning by me.” They were his last words. The white cap was drawn over his head, Sheriff Root touched the spring and the weight fell to the ground with a thud, jerking him up about six feet. He writhed spasmodically for five minutes when the body hung motionless, and Drs. Burr, Lewis, Brown and Johnson examined it. At the end of 5 minutes the pulsations at the wrist were 80 per minute; at 7 minutes, 72 per minute; at 8 ˝ minutes 60; 9 minutes 48; 10 ˝ minutes 36; at 11 minutes no pulsation at the wrist, and at 13 minutes from the time the drop fell the heart ceased to beat and he was pronounced dead, and at 20 minutes the body was lowered into the coffin a cold corse (corpse).  The next was not broken and the face little distorted. The death-warrant was signed and the coffin closed and given over to Mr. Warren, who had received a written request from Ferguson to see that his body was properly cared for.

            A large crowd had gathered in front of the jail with the hope of seeing or hearing something. Sheriff Root announced to them that the body would not be exposed to public view and they quietly dispersed. The body was placed in the public vault in the cemetery at 4 o’clock. It will probably be claimed by some of his friends.

            A last effort was made by persons in this village and elsewhere to secure from the Governor a respite or a commutation of his sentence to imprisonment for life. The following reply by his private secretary has been made public as his reason for not interfering with the due execution of the law.



ALBANY, June 13, 1871


Hon. George W. Schuler, Ithaca, NY

            Dear Sir:-The Governor has just returned from New York, and directs me to say, in answer to your letter of the 7th inst., that he has very fully and carefully considered what you write concerning the case of Ferguson, and that he is not able to see any sufficient reason for changing the decision already made.

            In most cases where a capital offense has been committed and a conviction is had, public sentiment, which at first demanded the most speedy and rigorous execution of the law. Sometimes not desiring to wait even for the law’s delays, undergoes a change as the day of execution draws near, and strongly favors a commutation of sentence, so that the prisoner’s life may be spared. This change in neither unnatural or to be deplored, and yet, if the Governor were to heed it in all cases, there would be very few, out of all the number convicted, who would suffer the penalty which the law prescribes.

            If the legal responsibility of Ferguson, there is no question, nor can it be doubtful that he had sufficient intelligence to know that he was perpetrating a very great, the greatest of all crimes. The measures of concealment which he adopted show this.

            There are very many among those who commit crimes (more in the cities than in the country) who have had no better training, if so good, than Ferguson had, and whom to as great an extent as he, are deficient in moral sense and general intelligence. Such men, above all others, need the terrors of the law to restrain them from crime, and it is the certainty that the punishment which the law imposes will be carried into effect, more than the degree of punishment which deters them.

            In the present condition of the public mind, with an apparently increasing tendency to the commission capital offenses and to hold human life lightly. It is necessary that it should be clearly understood that where legal responsibility exists the penalties of the law will be rigorously enforced.

            The prisoner’s guilt is clear. The crime was an atrocious one, and he is legally responsible. The Governor cannot interfere with the sentence of the court.

            I am directed further to say that if he could deem it proper to do so, the Governor would much prefer, in this as in all such cases to come to a different decision.

            I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant.

                                                                                    Edgar K. Aroar


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