Saunders: 135 years ago, NC had its own 'clumsy execution'

bsaunders@newsobserver.comMay 14, 2014 

On May 16, 135 years ago, the hills of Hillsboro were alive with the sound of string music.

Naw, not from the N.C. Symphony – that wouldn’t be created for another 53 years – but from the executioner’s rope slicing through the air in the Orange County town. (Which was spelled “Hillsboro” back then.)

Three Chapel Hill burglars – known as “the Chapel Hill Burglars” – were executed on that date as punishment for a series of burglaries and an ax attack that severely injured a woman.

Many in the civilized world were aghast when, last month, Oklahoma’s “humane” execution of convicted killer Clayton Lockett went awry. Instead of exiting this world smoothly, the dude ended up dying of a heart attack 43 minutes after the state-approved mixture of drugs failed to do what they were advertised to do.

Death penalty opponents saw Lockett’s excruciating exit via a poorly executed execution as proof that the state has no business being in the killing business. Death penalty proponents argued either that a convicted killer’s death should be gruesome or that a fail-safe, more humane method such as hanging should be re-implemented.

Fail-safe? Humane? If the ghosts of Alphonso Davis, Henry A. Andrews and Lewis Carlton could speak, they’d disagree.

Those three members of a uniquely integrated “quartette(sic) of cut-throats” – a fourth member was spared the rope after testifying against his confederates – danced at the end of the hangman’s noose in a Hillsboro field for their crimes. The quartet comprised two whites, Davis and Andrews, and two blacks, Carlton and Albert Atwater. Davis was a member of the Chapel Hill String Band.

‘Weary anxiety’

With help from a researcher at the Chapel Hill Historical Society and news stories of the day, one learns that the yearlong crime spree of the “indolent, foolish and reckless desperadoes … begat sleepless nights and days of weary anxiety” throughout Orange County.

The N.C. General Assembly in 1974 changed the law that had made first-degree burglary a capital offense – you can still get life in prison for it – but that was too late for Davis, Andrews and Carlton.

Days after the arrests and nine months before the executions, The New York Times reported, “The feeling against the prisoners was so strong that a party of 300 men stationed themselves at a certain point between Chapel Hill and Hillsboro, for the purpose of intercepting the prisoners … (and) hanging them without judge or jury.”

Deputies averted a lynching by taking Old Hillsboro Road and getting the prisoners into the jail, the paper reported.

Of course, that didn’t stop the Times from appearing to convict them even before a trial. Its story concluded, “There is little doubt that they will all be convicted and promptly hanged.”

Gee, good job, Newstradamus.

May 16, 1771, saw another “reign of terror” in the town, according to Scott Washington of the Orange County Historical Museum. Washington, the museum’s assistant director, said that was the date of the “Battle of Alamance,” in which the British governor’s forces killed some people who’d formed a militia to protest taxation and government corruption.

‘Clumsy execution’

In a headline on the 1879 hanging story that appeared in The Observer – a predecessor of our beloved News & Observer – the triple hanging was referred to as “a clumsy execution.”

Clumsy it was. The ropes were apparently too long, causing the feet of two of the condemned men to hit the ground, necessitating an immediate re-hanging. It took the trio 13, 14 and 15 minutes, respectively, to die.

More than 10,000 people reportedly watched the execution.

The Observer reported the day before the executions that, “The thousands whose sickening curiosity will make them hover round about the three dead wretches dangling at midday in mid-air will look upon a sorry sight. Let us hope that they may hang as banners before the eyes of all who would rob their neighbors while they sleep.”

Fair enough. We all should worry about those who would rob their neighbors while they sleep.

Want to know who else I’m worried about, though? Anyone who wasn’t robbed of sleep that night, after watching three human beings writhing from the end of a rope, for 13, 14 and 15 minutes.

Washington, of the historical museum, wasn’t sure when the “ugh” was added to the end of Hillsboro’s name.

I’m guessing May 16, 1879.

Ugh, indeed.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or

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