Sunday, April 17, 2011

Hanging of Hunter Raiders Continues

Throughout December, 1838, the Upper Canada solicitor-general, Lt.-Colonel William Draper, 37, kept up the relentless pace of his show trials in Kingston. In concert, Lt.-Governor Sir George Arthur, 54, confirmed the execution orders that kept the town’s hangmen busy.

A steady parade of American men, who were seen as freedom fighters by many in upstate New York, paid the ultimate price for their misguided heroics.

Following the executions of Nils von Schoultz, 31, on December 8, and Daniel George, 27, and Dorrephus Abbey, 47, on December 12, Colonel Martin Woodruff mounted the gallows on December 19.

Woodruff, 40, was the sheriff of Onondaga County, New York, a colonel in the state militia, and the last senior Hunter officer to hang. By all accounts, the hangmen that day were amateurs. Woodruff—a big man, over six feet tall and well past 200 pounds—dropped through the trap door and, in front of 250 witnesses, died a slow and agonizing death.

In his memoirs, William Gates relates what he read about Woodruff’s last minutes from newspapers: “The knot, instead of drawing tightly under the ear, slipped to the chin, leaving considerable space, and throwing the weight of the body upon the jack of the neck. In this manner he remained writhing in torment, till the spectators cried out for shame, when two hangmen stepped out and strove to strangle the poor sufferer! Failing in this, one ascended to the cross-bar, where, grasping the rope, he jerked the body upward and downward, as he would have done a sheep-stealing dog, four successive times, before the neck was broken and the lamp of life extinguished in its mortal clay.”

Woodruff’s body lies in the cemetery of St. Mary's Catholic Church, Kingston, next to Nils von Schoultz.

Joel Peeler, 41, a farmer, and Sylvanus Swete (a.k.a Sweet), 21, a cooper, faced their executions December 22. Both men pleaded guilty to being part of the Prescott raid. Evidence against Swete suggested he was the sniper who killed Lieutenant William Johnson on the first day of the windmill siege. Peeler was accused of mutilating Johnson’s corpse.

After a pause for the Christmas holidays, four more men hanged January 4, 1839: Christopher Buckley, 30, a Hunter captain and salt manufacturer; Sylvester Lawton, 28, a Hunter captain and farmer; Russell Phelps, 38, a tailor; and Duncan Anderson, 48, a laborer. Like Woodruff, Phelps and Anderson were also veterans of the aborted Hickory Island raid the previous February. Some suggested Phelps had also helped Bill Johnston burn the Sir Robert Peel.

In his memoirs, Daniel Heustis wrote about Anderson’s hanging: “Poor Anderson was sick, and could not have lived many weeks, if they had taken the best care of him! He was so weak that his murderers were obliged to support him on the scaffold! Comment on such atrocious barbarity is needless. In the evening, after this inhuman execution, Colonel [Henry] Dundas and his officers had a gay and mirthful pleasure party! O, shame! Where is thy blush?”

The day Anderson and the others died coincided with the last trial of the 161 Hunters captured after the windmill battle. Of those, Draper managed to court martial 140 in about five weeks. Of those, four were acquitted, two were given prison terms, and 134 others were sentenced to death. Another 16 men were released without trial, including many Hunter wounded and informers like Levi Chipman. Five wounded captives died.

By the time the last trial ended, 10 of the captured Hunters had made the one-way trip to the gallows. In the cold, stone casements of Fort Henry, 124 others awaited their fates. Unbeknownst to them, the hangings were almost over.
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