A hanging always drew a good crowd in 19th century Buffalo, a rough-and-tumble canal and lake port that almost doubled in size every 10 years as the country moved westward.
But when the Thayer brothers -- Nelson, Israel and Isaac -- were hanged in Niagara Square in 1825, it was a particularly huge event. A crowd estimated at 15,000 to 25,000 people came to watch; Buffalo at the time counted only 5,000 residents.
And the execution was so eerie, it probably signaled the beginning of the end of hanging as a public spectacle, to be viewed by the masses like a modern-day Bills or Sabres game.
The Thayers -- who murdered a North Boston peddler, Scotchman Love -- started wailing as they awaited their death on the scaffold. Their keening moan went silent only when the rope was cut and the trapdoor dropped away beneath them.
"But then the wailing monotone was involuntarily picked up by the spectators, and it echoed a thousandfold across the square," Richard C. Brown and Bob Watson wrote in "Buffalo: Lake City in Niagara Land."
Those who saw the Thayers hang remembered that mournful wail the rest of their days.
Hanging remained the favored method for executing criminals throughout the country until 1890, when William Kemmler, a convicted murderer from Buffalo, became the first in the nation to die in the electric chair. Buffalo dentist Alfred P. Southwick invented the contraption.
Eventually even the electric chair gave way in most states to the more sanitized form of capital punishment generally used today, lethal injection.
In the 1870s, the time of one of Buffalo's most celebrated executions, criminals were still hung by the neck until dead.
But as Buffalo's population hit the 100,000 mark and the city began acquiring a bit more civilization -- despite Canal Street and its brawling denizens -- hangings became a lot less public.
It was not for lack of interest. Thousands gathered on Feb. 14, 1873, for the hanging of Thomas Gaffney at the site of what is now the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library.
But Sheriff Grover Cleveland had already set a team of carpenters and sailmakers to work, building a frame around the jailyard and covering it with canvas walls and roof to keep out prying eyes.
Cleveland invited only a select group of 70 witnesses to the Gaffney hanging, leaving everyone else to mill about outside the canvas walls.
Buffalo's newspapers had featured breathless day-to-day coverage of Gaffney's trial and his attempts to escape hanging by claiming he was insane.
Gaffney, 29, as the Buffalo Express described him, was "the son of notorious prostitute, born and cradled in the slums of a populous city. An orphan at 8, errand boy of thieves, tool of the outcasts of society."
He was accused of shooting Patrick Fahey during a card game in Sweeney's Tavern along Canal Street. Gaffney, a tavern owner himself, had been on a three-week binge when he lost his last cent playing cards against Fahey, who lacked the common sense to shut up about it. Fahey finally said too much, the two had words, and Gaffney's brother-in-law slipped him a gun.
Gaffney's first shot went into the wall of Sweeney's tavern, but the next two found their mark. Fahey stumbled outside, fell into a gutter and died within five minutes.
Fahey, a sailor, was no angel himself. Born in Canada, he moved to Buffalo as a boy. He did time in prison for stabbing a man in Fort Erie.
After he was tried and convicted, Gaffney was sentenced to hang on Feb. 7. Cleveland, the city's future mayor, New York governor and the only president to serve separate terms in office, would pull the lever himself.
The burly Cleveland, who was already known as Big Steve and would swell to more than 300 pounds by the time he became president, preferred hunting and fishing in the marshlands of Grand Island to his duties as sheriff. He easily could have passed off the job to his undersheriff.
But Cleveland felt the hanging was his duty and said he would execute Gaffney as he did the previous September when he hanged Patrick Morrisey, a pathetic young man who murdered his mother.
Little did Cleveland know he would go down in history as the only president to have served as executioner.
Gaffney, however, had other ideas. The day before his hanging, he got a two-week stay from the court, claiming he was insane at the time of the murder.
Buffalo's newspapers had a field day, as did the august New York Times.
"The murderer Gaffney, who is lying under sentence of death in Buffalo, evidently believes in the maxim, 'Better Late Than Never,' " the Times wrote. "All other means of escaping his death having failed, Gaffney has recently decided to become insane."
The Buffalo Express sounded a lot like 20th century critics of laws upholding the rights of criminals.
"Fortunately, or unfortunately for the community at large," wrote the Express, "the laws of the State of New York at present seem to be designed and adopted for the express purpose of protecting the criminal and keeping society at all times exposed to his depredation and assaults."
Cleveland let a reporter from the Express inside the jail to interview Gaffney, to see if he was crazy or not.
"During the brief conversation, nothing occurred, either in looks or actions of the prisoner, in any way manifesting a tendency towards insanity," wrote the man from the Express.
During a second interview with the newspaper, however, Gaffney went berserk, tearing off a crucifix, cussing out his jailers, and the next day even swearing at the Sisters of Mercy when they came to pray for his soul. Cleveland ordered Gaffney examined by a council of physicians.
"Gaffney was brought into court and seated inside the bar," the Express wrote on the following day. "He remained quietly in his seat during the whole examination, gazing around the room vacantly, rolling his eyes and acting as crazy men are supposed to."
Meanwhile, preparations for the hanging continued. No longer were men hanged from the branch of the nearest tree or yardarm. Hanging had become a matter for craftsmen and scientific precision.
For Gaffney, at 5 feet 7 inches and 130 pounds, the scaffold was built to allow a drop of slightly more than five feet when the lever was pulled and the trapdoor went out from under him.
The drop had to be just right. If it was too great, the subject could be decapitated. Not far enough, and he would die a long, slow, agonizing death in full view of the spectators.
When Morrisey was hanged the previous fall, an Express writer went to great lengths to praise the precision of the dropping mechanism. When Cleveland pulled the lever, the paper wrote, "There was no rebound. The body hung perfectly motionless."
Gaffney's temporary reprieve ended early the next week, when the physicians appointed by Cleveland found him to be perfectly sane.
"A Case of Feigned Insanity," read the Feb. 11 headline in the Buffalo Evening Post.
"As the Buffalo Evening Post charged, his insanity was feigned," the paper crowed. "In other words, they found the prisoner sane. Such is at last the end of the most extraordinary attempt to cheat the gallows of its due."
Gaffney, the Post charged, "belongs to the pistol-shooting, bullying, law-deriding class of society."
The Buffalo Express wasn't any kinder: "The long agony is almost over, and the end of a worthless life is near at hand."
Gaffney's last day dawned overcast. While the crowd started gathering early, Gaffney sat down to a last meal of poached eggs, toast and a bowl of coffee. The night before, he had eaten a last supper of broiled ham, fried potatoes, tea, cake, pie and preserves.
At 10:45 Cleveland ordered the jailyard cleared, and everyone holding a ticket to the execution reported to his office. At precisely 11:25, Cleveland led the procession of guests to the gallows.
The audience gathered in front of a scaffold consisting of two uprights supporting a crossbar 13 feet from the ground. Gaffney was led up the stairs to the 6-foot-square platform.
A 3/4 -inch-thick manila rope was thrown over his shoulder. The noose was put around his neck. A black hood would soon cover his head.
Gaffney stood with his hands behind him. The Express reported his face was pale and bloodless, even through his full beard and mustache. He looked out at the crowd through clear hazel eyes.
Cleveland took his position at the lever, waiting to spring the trapdoor, as Gaffney said a prayer, looking at the crucifix he held.
Gaffney said goodbye to his family; his children, Mary and Johnnie; his wife, Lizzie. "Goodbye, Lizzie. I hope we will meet in heaven," he said.
But a man who delayed his hanging this long wasn't ready to go yet. The priests standing nearby tried to stop him, but Gaffney told the crowd he wasn't to blame for Fahey's death. He was drunk, he didn't realize what he was doing, his brother-in-law never should have given him a gun.
"When I saw what I had done, I said to God, what will become of my children?" Gaffney said. "I washed his face and sent a boy for a doctor. I never tried to run away.
"Of course I did all I could to save my life," Gaffney said. "Of course I played insanity. I would have been content to live in a dungeon if I could see my little family grow up. It is a shame I did not tell at first. If I had, I don't think I would be here today."
When Gaffney's speech was finally over, Detective Jake Emrick slid the black hood over his head.
"Jake, what you said last spring comes true," Gaffney told the detective. "Will you forgive me?"
Gaffney, at the time, had pulled a gun on Emrick in Fisher's Saloon, causing Emrick to tell him, "Gaffney, I'll have to put the rope around your neck yet."
"Johnny, it's so," Emrick replied. "I forgive you."
The two shook hands.
"Fix the rope so it won't hurt me, Jake," were the condemned man's last words.
For a second, Gaffney stood alone on the trapdoor. At two minutes to 12, Cleveland pulled the lever.
"The drop fell with a thud," the Express reported. "The body poised for a second in the air. It fell heavily. The sharp 'crick' of the rope followed. The hands raised slightly and fell nervelessly to the side, unclasping in their descent and dropping the crucifix. The body turned slowly around with its back to the spectators, standing in the sharp winter air, and swung for a moment to and fro."
In the following five minutes, witnesses counted 10 final breaths. A doctor took his pulse at six minutes and found his heart still pumping at 87 beats a minute. At 11 minutes, he could find no pulse at Gaffney's wrist. At 14 1/2 minutes, he put a stethoscope to Gaffney's chest and found a heart rate of 45 beats. At 18 minutes, there was no heartbeat. Finally, 23 1/2 minutes after Cleveland pulled the lever, Gaffney was pronounced dead.
Gaffney's body was lowered into a rosewood coffin and taken outside the jailyard to a waiting hearse. The crowd was so thick, it took 30 officers to clear a path.
"The last scene of the Gaffney case has been witnessed," wrote the Commercial Advertiser and Journal. "He has passed beyond the jurisdiction of any human tribunal. The murderer has been hung by the neck until he is dead. May God have mercy on his soul!"