Andrew Green, James Whitnah, and Denver's Last Public Execution
[WARNING: the following contains graphic descriptions of violence, include lynching]
On July 27, 1886, nearly 20,000 Denverites gathered on a barren patch of land between the Broadway and Colfax bridges to witness the hanging of convicted murderer Andrew Green. What they didn't know was that the legally sanctioned—and grotesque—spectacle they were about to view would be the last public execution conducted in the Mile High City.
Capital punishment proponents and opponents generally agree that Green's hanging was a deeply flawed affair that left the large crowd in a stunned silence. But Green's execution, and its aftermath, helped move Denver a few steps from its frontier days and, in the eyes of its city fathers anyway, brought forth a different way of enforcing capital punishment.
The murder of Joseph Whitnah
Joseph Whitnah, a Denver City Railway operator, was turning his trolley around at the intersection of Broadway and Alameda on the night of May 19, 1886, when Green leapt into the car and fired two shots from a small .38 caliber revolver. Whitnah died almost immediately from a gunshot that penetrated his heart. Investigators were surprised to find that $14 in fares lay untouched in Whitnah's cashbox, which left them with the task of solving a crime that seemed to lack a motive. In the days before Green's arrest, Whitnah's name was smeared by allegations that he'd been murdered at the hands of a jealous husband, along with other unfounded rumors.
On May 21, however, Denver police caught a break when a private detective received a tip from a man who overhead Green speaking of the crime at a Larimer Street bar called the G.A.R. Saloon. In Green's version, he and a man named John "Kansas" Withers walked up to Broadway and Alameda with the express intent of robbing the trolley.
After waiting several hours for the right moment, Green jumped on to the trolley and demanded Whitnah put up his hands. A terrified Whitnah let out a startled scream, which caused Green to accidentally fire the gun. With Whitnah writhing on the trolley car floor in agony, Green fired a second, and very deliberate, close-range shot that killed the trolley driver on the spot.
Police quickly narrowed in on Withers and elicited a confession from him almost immediately. Withers pointed to Green, who hadn't been on the police’s radar to that point, and he was apprehended. Police had no trouble finding Green as he was already in their custody; he was on a chain gang after being arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct and carrying a concealed weapon.
Green wasn't surprised when he was arrested for Whitnah's murder and claimed he was just minutes away from escaping the chain gang when they pulled him in for questioning. On May 25, Green confessed to Whitnah's killing, but his confession would remain a source of controversy throughout his trial and, indeed, right up until his last moments on earth.
One day after his arrest, a crowd of men (many of whom were identified as Denver Railway Company workers) attempted to storm the Arapahoe County Jail with the intention of lynching Green. Sheriff Frederick Cramer stood his ground against the crowd by assuring them that Green would likely face a legal hanging and was willing to use force to ensure that only the proper authorities would dispense that kind of justice.
Was this crime premeditated?
Committing an unplanned murder during the commission of a separate crime is a capital offense in many states, whereas an unplanned, spontaneous murder (road rage, for example) is generally considered to be a lesser, but still serious, offense. The concepts of first- and second-degree murder were still relatively new in 1886, and Colorado law had a couple wrinkles that added layers of complication to the issue. As William King noted in his book, Going to Meet a Man: Denver's Last Public Execution, 27 July 1886:
...if Green pleaded guilty a jury would fix the degree of the crime and the punishment to be imposed. If he chose to plead not guilty and then be found guilty of murder in the first degree, he would be hanged.
Throughout his trial, Green contended that he had been told that the death penalty would be off the table if he confessed, though whether that was true remains unclear. At one point, Edgar Caypless, Green's attorney who worked both tirelessly and pro bono on his behalf, suggested that since there was no robbery, a felony murder hadn't actually occurred. None of these arguments held much sway with the jury, which isn't particularly surprising.
Green's confession was particularly damning and remained front-page news in Denver for days. News reports of the crime and Green's subsequent confession likely made finding an impartial jury a difficult matter. In fact, several jurors were very forthcoming in saying that they believed Green was probably guilty, but that they would be impartial anyway.
After a week-long trial, the jury deliberated for a little over an hour and returned a guilty verdict on a charge of first-degree murder. The jury was polled four times, as one juror held out for a second-degree murder charge, which would have put Green behind bars for life. From that point on, Green's fate was sealed. All that remained was for the grim details of his execution to be worked out.
Getting ready for a public execution
In the United States of America, punishments which are deemed cruel and unusual are not legal, even in capital cases. That means that the state is legally obliged to dispatch the condemned in a quick and relatively painless manner. In 19th-century America, that meant there was plenty of very detailed, very technical talk about the best way to hang a human being "by the neck until he shall be dead," which is how the warrant for Green's death sentence read.
Efficient hanging, it turns out, is not as easy as the layman might think and there's plenty of opportunity for the process to take a gruesome turn. Further complicating the matter, the Arapahoe County Sheriffs' Office hadn't conducted an execution since 1873. Details including where the gallows would be erected, if the hanging would be a public event, and what kind of rope would be used all had to be figured out in just under three weeks.
By 1886, most American cities had long since stopped conducting executions in public, and Denver business interests were not keen on looking like a Wild West outpost where murderers swung from the light posts. Sheriff Cramer liked the prospect of public execution as a deterrent to future crimes and pointed out that there were no statutes specifically calling for a private execution (nor was there a place to conduct a private execution anyway). Cramer was, however, worried about the prospect of botching the execution and creating a ghastly public spectacle—as well as the cost of building a gallows.
Regarding the issue of how to humanely execute Green, Cramer was convinced that a "twitch-up" gallows was the best bet. In the grim world of execution mechanics, a twitch-up gallows employs a weight which, when dropped, pulls the condemned person up, instantly snapping his or her neck. This was believed to have been a reasonable alternative to the standard "long drop" technique, which frequently left the condemned in agonizing pain as they were slowly strangled by the rope.
A grim and public event
As July trudged along, Green's lawyers tried every legal maneuver they could come up with to save his life, but nothing worked. By July 22 Green had exhausted both his appeals and his means of funding those appeals. His execution was set for July 27 and the Rocky Mountain News began a flurry of coverage, which included both an eight-page summary of Green's life and a festive countdown to the execution.
Green seemed to have been resigned to his fate from the beginning and by most accounts, wasn't openly emotional. He seemed to make the most of life in the Arapahoe County Jail, where he frequently met with reporters and his spiritual advisors from the AME Church. While incarcerated, Green turned to religion for comfort and was allowed plenty of visitors from the church. The AME even conducted a jailhouse service for Green, complete with a choir. Reports describe a cigar-smoking Green as being relatively calm and slightly distracted during these times.
Perhaps Green was just exhausted after a short but eventful life which included multiple brushes with the law and several incarcerations. Or maybe he was sincerely sorry for his transgressions and saw the afterlife as an opportunity at redemption. Either way, when dawn broke on July 27, Green remained calm and appeared to enjoy his last meal of porterhouse steak, cherry pie, and tea.
While a somber mood took over the Arapahoe County Jail, the same could not be said for the streets of Denver. On Moose Street (now 10th Avenue) between Broadway and Colfax, a large crowd gathered as workmen began assembling the gallows.
By afternoon, the crowd had swelled to the thousands and a carnival-like atmosphere had taken over by the time the wagon carrying Green arrived. In the sweltering summer heat, vendors sold ice-cold lemonade and families dined on picnic lunches. So many people gathered for the hanging that witnesses reported that downtown Denver was all but deserted, as if on a holiday.
As Green awaited his fate, Undersheriff John Chivington (yes, that Chivington) read out the warrant as a choir sang religious hymns, including some requested by Green. Friends of Green were called out from the crowd to say their final farewells and Green was given time to say his last words. In a steady voice, that appeared to be free of anger, Green stated that he really should have been convicted of second-degree murder, but was at peace with his fate.
Despite the somber mood on the scaffold, rowdies in the crowd called for sheriff's to "put a rope on him" and "choke him off."
A hanging gone wrong
Although the Arapahoe County Sheriffs' Office took every precaution—including ordering 100 feet of custom-made hanging rope, to ensure Green's swift dispatch—fate had other plans. After the conclusion of “Nearer, My God to Thee," Green's limbs were tied and a bag placed over his face. At approximately 2:24 p.m., Cramer cut the main rope holding the 320-pound counterweight which was to have jerked Green into the air, snapping his neck in the process. But that's not what happened.
Though Green definitely jerked into the air, his rebound was not enough to snap his neck. The once-festive atmosphere turned appropriately grim as Green's body twitched and jerked in a primal struggle for survival. Twelve minutes after his "jerk up," doctors could still feel a pulse on Green's wrist. At 3:45 p.m., undertakers removed him from the rope and placed him in a casket bound for the "colored" section of Riverside Cemetery.
Reactions to Green's botched execution were negative in almost every Denver newspaper except the Rocky Mountain News, which maintained a stubborn insistence that public executions were a grim necessity. Two more men would die by hanging in public in Colorado before a moratorium went into effect in July 1889.
Green's trial and execution brings up lots of questions for contemporary readers that likely wouldn't have charted for Denver residents circa 1886. For starters, there's the glaring issue of whether or not Green would have been treated differently if he'd looked more like his all-white jury. Would they have been more amenable to a charge of second-degree murder if he'd been white, or didn't have a criminal record?
King writes that while Denver's Black community rallied around Green's spiritual health, they weren't necessarily supportive of efforts to win his freedom. But there never appeared to be any doubt about Green's guilt, and his pathway to the gallows seemed all but a done deal from the beginning.
There's also the issue of whether executions conducted in private are any better or worse than those conducted in public. While there are no lemonade vendors at a contemporary execution site, challenges with dispatching human beings in a manner that is not "cruel" or "unusual" remain. This is evidenced in the contemporary debate over lethal injection as a means of execution.
While we can't answer these questions definitively, we encourage anyone who wants to learn more about how the death penalty (both official and extrajudicial) has been conducted in Colorado to read The History of the Death Penalty in Colorado by Michael L. Radelet and Lynching in Colorado 1859-1919 by Stephen Leonard.
Thanks for another interesting nugget of Denver history. Kudos to entire WHG staff for increasing my knowledge of Denver instead of working outside in the hot sun.
Thanks for the kind words and stay cool!
thanks for this very informative post. I had not known about this case and will likely research it a bit more...your blog is very timely given the issues that are now in the forefront in Denver & throughout the U.S. And I appreciate your careful handling of the story!
Hi Francis - Thanks for the kind words. If you can get a hold of a copy of Professor King's book, I would really recommend it. It's pretty riveting and very detailed.
Lynching in Colorado 1859-1919 by Stephen Leonard is a good recommendation. I read it a couple of years ago.
In an interview with the author of Legal Executions on History Net it is reported that Andrew Green wrote an autobiography while he was imprisoned awaiting his trial.
Hi Matthew - Thanks for reading and commenting. There was a pretty long autobiography that he published in the Rocky Mountain News the week of his execution that included many episodes from his life that were alluded to in his trial. It took up about eight full pages of nearly solid text on the RMN.
This article carries a warning that says this is about a lynching. Many people will think this is correct but it is not. Mr. Green was not lynched. He was executed in accordance with jury's finding of his guilt and his sentencing. This is not what a lynching is. A lynching is a non-judicial punishment which may or may not include death. If a mob runs a person out of town, tarred and feathered, that person was lynched. Of course, if a mob hangs a person that is also a lynching.
Hi Lee - We see your point and agree that we could have worded that warning a little tighter. That said, the "lynching" we warn about would have been more accurately called "an attempted lynching" and would definitely fit the extra-judicial requirement.
We appreciate the attention to detail and agree with you that language matters, especially when discussing issues such as this.
Thanks for reading and commenting.
The man who was murdered was Joseph Whitnah, not James. He was my great grandfather.
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