Q: My mom once told me a story about her dad, who was a former sheriff of Macoupin County. She said that one day when she was a little girl, she ran after her dad, begging, “Take me riding with you today, Daddy!” He answered, “No, honey, I can’t. I’ve got to run a hanging today at the courthouse.” My question: How were public executions run in the old days?
John Rinderer, Aviston
They were run very swiftly, very efficiently — and very rarely, if reports of the only two legal executions in Macoupin County that I could find can be believed.
“Macoupin County’s long record of no legal executions may be broken at Carlinville on December 22 (1924) when Lester Kahl, 24 years old, is led to the gallows for the death of his bride,” read the opening of an Edwardsville Intelligencer article published after Kahl’s sentencing on Nov. 29.
In the late summer that year, the young farmer had shot Marguerite Kahl, his wife of just 13 days, and buried her in a shallow grave in his fields. Before her body was found, Kahl claimed that she had run off with a strange man and woman in an automobile. Finally, after a “rigid grilling,” Kahl broke down and confessed to a murder as cold-blooded as you’ll ever find.
“I killed my wife on Thursday, September 15, about 7 o’clock,” Kahl stated in a signed confession published in the Macoupin County Enquirer. “I went to the wheat field where I was getting ready to sow wheat about 1:15 Thursday. I put the gun on the wagon after dinner.
“My wife came out to the field where I was harrowing about 7 p.m. She began (to) talk about a girl with whom I had kept company before our marriage and also asked me to buy some clothes, which, however, I told her that I could not afford. It was after this conversation I decided to kill her.
“I asked her to hand me the gun ... I told her to get to the other side of the hedge and drive some doves out so I could shoot them. I intended to kill her when she got to the other side of the hedge. She was about 30 feet away when I shot her the first time. ‘You have done a good job,” she uttered when she fell. I then went over to the hedge, reloaded the gun and fired a second shot, which killed her instantly.”
After loading her body on his wagon, Kahl said he drove about a quarter of a mile and dug a “knee-deep” hole in which he laid her body and covered it with his horse’s blanket before filling it back in.
A few weeks later, Kahl denied the confession and said he would claim insanity. But on Nov. 29, Judge Frank Burton showed no mercy.
“It is the duty of this court to see that justice is done,” Burton said. “No worse crime has ever been committed in Macoupin County. Therefore, I sentence you to hang by the neck until dead.”
“While waiting to hear his fate, Kahl sat upright in his chair,” the Intelligencer reported. “As he heard the words which would plunge him into eternity, he dropped his head but said nothing. Suddenly, he pulled at his chest as though it was difficult for him to breathe. His father, Edward Kahl, sat with a bowed head and said nothing. Attorney E.C. Knotts (Kahl’s lawyer) offered no complaint and said he had no fault to find with the order. It indicates no attempts will be made to save the man’s life.”
The sentence was carried out Dec. 22 — just three months after the killing — on a gallows set up in the rear of the county jail in Carlinville. It was perhaps where your grandfather was heading that day, because it may have been the last execution in the county.
It also may have been the first execution since June 2, 1840, when Aaron Todd was hanged for the Jan. 26, 1840, murder of his cousin Larkin Scott to steal $26.
“The news that a man was to be hung on the 2nd of June spread far and wide,” according to “The History of Macoupin County.” “When the day arrived that the sentence of the court was to be executed, not less than 8,000 people had gathered in the county seat.
“The scaffold was erected south of West Main Street, below the depot. Dr. John Logan, colonel of the 44th Regiment of militia, had 500 of his men in line for the preservation of order. Todd met his fate bravely, and with resignation. Two weeks before, he made a profession of religion, and died in the hope of a better life.
“He was buried on the west side of the burying ground, at some distance from other graves. Some days after his remains were interred, they were exhumed, and his head and one arm were severed from the body, and taken away.”
You can read former Congressman (and Macoupin County Sheriff) Frank Fries’ detailed account of the Kahl murder in True Detective Mysteries (“The Affair of the Devil’s Bride”) at www.macoupinctygenealogy.org/pictures/slaughter2.html#murder.
Waynesboro, Ga., (pop. 5,800) calls itself the capital of the world when it comes to what popular (and helpful) creature?
Answer to Sunday’s trivia: On Aug. 21, 1887, Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev, perhaps best known for creating the periodic table of chemical elements, became the first man to witness a total solar eclipse from the air. While low clouds prevented most people on the ground from seeing the event, Mendeleev enjoyed an excellent view when he rose above it all in a gas-filled balloon that he launched from the village of Klin, 60 miles northwest of Moscow.
BONUS: The first known attempt to photograph a total solar eclipse was made on July 8, 1842, by Giovanni Alessandro Majocchi in Milan, Italy. While he did capture images of the partial phase of the eclipse, his chemicals were not sensitive to record the corona around the sun during totality. The latter was first accomplished by Julius Berkowski on July 28, 1851, at an observatory in Königsberg, Prussia. Exposing his daguerrotype plate for 84 seconds, he managed to capture an image of the totally eclipsed sun that was about three-tenths of an inch wide.
My thanks to geologist-astronomer Dr. John Dvorak for the eclipse trivia this past week. If it has whetted your appetite for more, he has just published “Mask of the Sun: The Science, History and Forgotten Lore of Eclipses” ($19 at Amazon).