“Gentlemen, you are witnessing an illegal hanging. I am accused of killing Johnny Keller. He was the best friend I ever had.”
These were the last words spoken by William Williams, a man who was convicted of murder and sentenced to hang for killing Keller, who was his lover.
Williams was indeed executed in February 1906. But his punishment wasn’t swift and successful. It was horribly botched and set off a flurry of coverage in St. Paul newspapers.
Williams’ gruesome death didn’t just ignite public outrage at the time, however. It ultimately led to the abolishment of the death penalty in Minnesota.
On trial for murder
In 1903, Williams, a steamfitter originally from Cornwall, England, was working in Minnesota when he was hospitalized in St. Paul with diphtheria. While recovering, Williams — who was in his mid-20s — met 16-year-old Johnny Keller, and they soon became romantically involved.
A relationship between two male laborers of differing ages wasn’t that unusual in the early 20th century, and when Williams began to travel around Minnesota and Manitoba looking for work, Keller followed him.
Keller’s parents, however, weren’t so happy with the relationship. After the pair’s third trip to Winnipeg together, Keller’s parents become extremely concerned and demanded Keller return home to St. Paul.
Keller eventually did return to his parents in 1905, and that’s when further trouble began. Williams — upset, enraged and drunk — confronted Keller and his mother, Mary, with a gun, wounding them both. Johnny Keller died at the scene. Mary Keller passed a few days later.
Williams immediately turned himself in to the police and pleaded emotional insanity in court. But he was unsuccessful. He was convicted and sentenced to death for first-degree murder. Every attempt at an appeal was denied, and Williams was set to hang on Feb. 13, 1906.
A gruesome execution
In 1889, the Minnesota State Legislature had passed the John Day Smith Law, which stated that all executions would happen at night, away from the public eye. The law also banned the press from printing any details of the executions.
The law was passed swiftly in an attempt to promote morality. Newspaper editors were outraged and deemed it the “midnight assassination law.”
Under the law, Williams would hang at midnight in the basement of the Ramsey County courthouse, without the public, and absolutely no journalists. Despite this, 35 people, including two journalists, were present for Williams’ execution, and they all witnessed the fateful mistake by Ramsey County Sheriff Anton Miesen that changed the course of Minnesota history.
According to onlookers, Miesen miscalculated the length of the rope by about 6 inches. When the floor fell out from under Williams and he dropped, the rope stretched, but his neck didn’t break due to the too-long rope.
Williams was still alive. What happened next horrified those in attendance: Three deputies pulled the rope for 14 1/2 excruciating minutes until Williams was pronounced dead by strangulation.
An illegal hanging
Three newspapers — the St. Paul Pioneer Press, St. Paul Dispatch and St. Paul Daily News — broke the law and published the gruesome events in detail. The Minnesota Supreme Court later indicted the newspaper outlets for breaking the law, and each newspaper was found guilty and fined $25.
By the early 20th century, the public was generally against the death penalty, and not surprisingly, people were shocked and horrified by the botched execution. Williams’ death renewed public outcry against capital punishment. Furthermore, the public was sympathetic to Williams because his story was one of love and heartbreak. Then-Gov. John A. Johnson was against capital punishment. Mary Lochren, wife of U.S. district judge William Lochren, had attempted to save Williams’ life by publicly pleading with her husband, but to no avail.
As a result of the botched execution, plus a sympathetic and angry public — and weak support for the death penalty — Williams was the last person to be legally executed in Minnesota. After the execution, Gov. Johnson and his successor, Adolph O. Eberhart, deferred all death penalty sentences to life sentences.
A few years later on April 22, 1911, the state legislature and Eberhart abolished Minnesota’s death penalty for good.
Abigail Thompson is a public relations intern with the Minnesota Historical Society.