Stupid Question ™
Feb. 2, 2004
By John Ruch
Q: Was anyone ever burned at the stake in America, and if so, who was the last person executed that way?
—An Internet Pagan, from the Internet
A: Yes, indeed, America has seen burnings at the stake—and would you believe the last one I could find that truly fits the bill was in 1922? The basic act extended at least to the 1940s.
My dear pagan, you are undoubtedly thinking of Colonial witch-burnings. Fortunately, there weren’t any. Hanging was the Colonial death penalty of choice, and even then, in close-knit communities, it was rarely used. A murderer was more likely to be mutilated a bit and then made to stand on the gallows for a while to think about it, or wear a noose around their neck for a few years.
Various Native American tribes weren’t above tying the occasional scoundrel up and burning him, if you want to count the first “Americans.”
But as for the Colonials and their descendants, burning at the stake has been reserved almost exclusively for black men, and certainly for minorities.
The Colonials hopped on the burn-at-the-stake bandwagon in the 1700s, where it was put on the books in the Northern Colonies apparently as a sort of eye-for-an-eye punishment for arson. Arson by slaves, anyway.
Like most draconian Colonial laws, it was probably put on the books mostly to scare the socks off of people, which was much more effective in small Colonial towns than in today’s anonymous, mobile society.
However, that’s not to say it wasn’t put into force. There are two recorded cases of slaves being put to the torch as punishment for arson in New Jersey in the mid-1700s.
Then there was the infamous New York slave revolt “conspiracy” of 1741. Supposedly (and if true, understandably), a large group of slaves were plotting to bust loose and destroy their masters, at the instigation of white abolitionists. More than 35 people—including four whites—were found guilty and executed, mostly by hanging. But 13 slaves were burned alive at the stake. The “plot” supposedly included mass arson, which may have influenced this barbaric choice of punishment.
Records are too incomplete to know who was literally the last person to be judicially executed at the stake, but it almost certainly happened in this 1700s period. In the 1800s, sentiments grew against “brutal” forms of execution, which slowly led to the cessation of public execution, use of “merciful” methods such as the (now-considered-barbaric) electric chair and lethal injection, and so on.
But extra-judicial burnings at the stake were just warming up. The horrible reign of lynch mobs from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s led to thousands of deaths at the hands of kangaroo courts and bloodthirsty crowds for victims of all types.
However, the vast majority of lynching victims were black men killed by racist mobs. And minorities were the only ones to be burned at the stake, either literally or as close to it as convenience permitted. A crime, real or imagined, committed on a white woman was typically the excuse.
This legacy of burnings is bizarre and hideous almost beyond belief—all the moreso if you accept the commonplace notion that racism has gradually waned in the country. In fact, publicly acceptable racism—and burnings—peaked around 1900-1910.
I include lynching as an “execution” because such acts of vigilantism were intended as a sort of ersatz law and often reflected community mores—hideous as they might be—more accurately than actual law and order.
The classic rebirth of American stake burnings was the tragedy of Sam Holt or Hose. Accused of murdering a white man and raping his wife, Holt/Hose was tied to a “small sapling” surrounded by wood near Newnan, Georgia, on July 23, 1899. The lynch mob mutilated him with knives, then burned him alive. Afterward, his corpse was cut up, the pieces handed out as souvenirs.
During his 1904 campaign, Mississippi governor James Vardaman was moved to attend a lynch mob stake burning, likening the victim to an ape being punished for kidnapping a human baby.
Blacks weren’t the only victims. Hispanic Antonio Rodriguez was, incredibly, burned at the cactus in Rock Springs, Texas, on Nov. 3, 1910, after being charged on poor evidence with murdering a white woman. He was doused with kerosene beforehand.
But African-Americans certainly bore the brunt of this grotesque pyromania. After being legally sentenced to death (by hanging) for the rape/murder of a white woman, Jesse Washington of Waco, Texas, was dragged out of court by a mob. He was covered with oil, then hanged from a chain over a bonfire.
In Kirven, Texas, on May 4, 1922, McKinley Curry found himself accused—probably correctly—of murdering a teenage girl. A mob dragged him from jail and castrated him with knives. Then they bound him to a plow, stacked wood around it, and burned him alive. Two of his friends were also murdered by being dragged through the flames.
James Irwin of Ocilla, Georgia was tortured by a mob—including having his teeth pulled out with pliers—before he was burned alive and shot to pieces. That was in 1930.
On Jan. 25, 1942, Cleo Wright of Sikeston, Missouri, stabbed a white woman and then attacked a cop. Seized by a mob, he was dragged behind a car through town, then doused in gas and burned alive in the street in the black part of town.
Such crimes have faded as lynch mobs have become socially unacceptable. But, obviously, the fiery pathology remains in more personal crimes of hatred, such as the 2002 homophobic murder-by-gasoline of Santa Barbara, California actor Clint Scott Risetter.