Headless Body Stands and Lips Quiver on Convict’s Decapitated Dead After Hanging

Here’s another excellent story idea from Poolesville GoDCer Jack. If we gave awards for class participation, Jack would win. Thanks for all the tips. If any of you have story ideas, feel free to email [email protected].

James Madison Wyatt Stone in the Washington Post
James Madison Wyatt Stone in the Washington Post

The Washington Post had yet another crazy article on April 3rd, 1880 about an execution that was, well … over-executed (another, more recent hanging had a similar outcome).

In true 19th century fashion, this story is ridiculously graphic, the likes of which you would never see in today’s media (except a Wes Craven movie).

James Madison Wyatt Stone was duly executed in the yard of the jail at 1:11 o’clock yesterday, but the affair was turned into a sickening tragedy through an unforeseen and apparently unavoidable horror, which was no less than his complete decapitation by the rope.

The black cap was then drawn over his face, the last look of which on the world was a smile. The noose, tied with five turns in the knot, was then adjusted with unusual care, the knot being placed immediately behind the left ear, all slack gently drawn out, and the rope placed close under his chin and on the line of hair at the back. The trap was secured by an iron bolt and trigger below, from which the cord, which was concealed in a wooden casing … the cord was pulled and without a murmur from himself, the doomed man shot downward into eternity. A suppressed exclamation broke from the spectators and several turned their heads away.

And now this is where is gets crazy … really crazy.

Instead of the dangling and possible convulsed form of the dying man being as expected, all were horrified at seeing the body standing for a moment headless on the ground, the blood spurting in thin jets from the neck. Before anyone had time to realize what had occurred the decapitated trunk fell back, prone. The head had shot backwards also and bounded against the frame of the scaffold, falling about four or five feet from the body, the bleeding base being uppermost. The physicians were alone immediately allowed to approach the remains, Dr. McWilliams being the first to feel for pulsation in the corpse, while Dr. Crook disengaged the head from its black envelope. The heart was found to beat for some five minutes and the lips moved slightly, baring the teeth after being picked up. It was found that a remarkably clean cut, just below the chin and passing close under the ears, had severed the head just under the “atlas” or last vertebra, at the joint. An iron cot was procured and the body placed on it, while Drs. Carroll, Morgan and Crook, under the direction of Dr. McWilliams, sewed the head on.

After receiving the skillfull [sic] attention of the doctors the body of Stone looked little like the subject of such a hideous event, the face bearing at the time it was picked up a calm and peaceful expression.

At the end of the article, the Post published a series of final letters written by Stone, the last one being the shortest and most interesting.

I think Justice Hagner did me an injustice. He ruled against me all through. But man’s injustice to man will be made right by Him who over-ruleth all.

J. M. W. STONE.
April 1, 1880.

As this is the last writing I ever expect to do in this world, I write to say that all I have said about my not knowing what occurred on that fatal night is true. No man could love his wife more than I did. I wish to say this to all the world.

JAMES MADISON WYATT STONE

Okay, so this might be the craziest “From the Crazy Vault” post yet … a decapitated body standing upright after a hanging? I can’t make this stuff up.

About Tom

Tom founded Ghosts of DC on January 4th, 2012 as a blog to uncover the lost and untold history of Washington, D.C. He has lived in the city for over a decade and loves exploring every corner of the District.

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