The Truth About President Grover Cleveland’s Time As An Executioner
New Jersey’s Grover Cleveland is most well-known for being the only president to serve non-consecutive terms, but he also holds another record, albeit a less enviable one: He is the only president in history to have served as a hangman. According to Mental Floss, Cleveland was elected Erie County Sheriff in 1870, a role that also doubled as executioner back when hangings were still largely public events. Cleveland was uneasy about sending men to their deaths yet refused the offer from his deputy to take on the role in his stead, saying it should be the sheriff that commits the grisly deed for the town of Buffalo, New York.
In 1872, Cleveland carried out his first execution to a man named Patrick Morrissey, a 28-year-old who had killed his mother during a drunken squabble. Cleveland was reportedly sick for weeks after he conducted this first execution, but there was still worse to come when the time came again for the future 22nd and 24th President to execute a man.
Grover Cleveland botched the next hanging
According to Buffalo News, early 19th century hangings in Buffalo were huge spectator events, sometimes drawing more audience members than the city’s entire population. But the spectacle was harmed in 1825 when three brothers began to wail as they awaited their imminent death, which allegedly traumatizing many of the thousands in attendance. Yet when Cleveland was due to execute Thomas Gaffney, who was convicted of killing a man over a game of cards, thousands gathered near the grounds to witness the hanging. Indeed, the case had captured newspaper headlines after Gaffney’s last-ditch attempt to plead insanity. But this time, Cleveland had a wood-and-canvas frame to block the act from the public, only inviting a few dozen to witness Gaffney’s last moments. This was a good call.
“Fix the rope so it won’t hurt me, Jake,” were Gaffney’s last words, but the call was not properly heeded. When Cleveland pulled the lever, Gaffney had his neck broken but did not die immediately. It took 23 agonizing minutes before he finally died. Unsurprisingly, Cleveland never again executed a criminal, leaving his post as sheriff after just one term. His tenure as an executioner would become a sticking point later in his political career, as “Big Steve” became the “Buffalo Hangman.”
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