The Administration Building at the Missouri State Penitentiary, 1955. Missouri carried out executions at the penitentiary’s gas chamber from 1937 until switching to lethal injection in 1989 and moving its death row to the Potosi Correctional Center in Washington County. [Missouri State Archives/Missouri Digital Heritage, Mark Schreiber Collection, MS297_255_009]

With the exception of two years in the early twentieth century, the state of Missouri has always allowed the death penalty for capital crimes. The state legislature abolished it in 1917, only to reinstate it two years later. Methods of execution changed as social norms evolved. In 1937, the gas chamber at the State Penitentiary in Jefferson City replaced the gallows in the public square. Beginning in 1989, executions took place at the Potosi Correctional Center in Washington County, using lethal injection. From 1976 to 2023, according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), Missouri ranked among the nation’s top five states in the number of executions. 

During Missouri’s colonial period, the region’s French and Spanish officials had no power to conduct trials in capital cases, and even assault cases had to be forwarded to higher authorities in New Orleans. In the US territorial period, before the establishment of circuit courts in 1812, courts of oyer and terminer (empowered to hear felony cases) met periodically in various locations. In 1806, General James Wilkinson, the newly appointed territorial governor, commissioned a court for the trial of two Kickapoo men. Ouipinicaka and Ouabesca surrendered to authorities in St. Louis and admitted to killing two white hunters in an act of revenge for the slaying by white men of five Kickapoo tribesmen. Governor Wilkinson did not take similar action against the white men who were responsible for the original act of violence. A grand jury indicted the Kickapoo men, who were tried, found guilty of murder, and hanged. These executions angered tribal leaders and raised questions about fairness in the application of capital punishment. 

Several sources, including the public records of the DPIC, have overlooked the Kickapoo defendants in naming another case as the first use of the death penalty in Missouri. In 1810, Peter Johnson was tried for murder in Ste. Genevieve. Henry Marie Brackenridge, a notable local attorney, defended the accused, but a panel of judges found Johnson guilty and sentenced him to be hanged on August 3. The execution took place on a high hill near the center of town with many people in attendance.

In the nineteenth century, public hangings often drew crowds, but the execution of four Black men in St. Louis in 1841 drew an enormous throng of spectators. In April of that year, a fugitive from slavery named Madison and three free Black men murdered two white men while committing a robbery. One month later, a jury convicted Madison and his codefendants, James W. Seward, Amos A. Warrick, and Charles Brown, of first-degree murder. A huge assemblage, estimated at more than twenty thousand, gathered on Duncan’s Island about a mile south of the St. Louis Courthouse to witness the hanging of all four men. A local newspaper commented, with disapproval, that a large number of women, some of them fashionably dressed, stood and watched the grisly proceedings. 

More Black men, whether enslaved or free, faced the death penalty than white men. This was especially true in cases of rape. Most of the slave states and the District of Columbia sentenced enslaved men to death for the rape of white women. In its early days, Missouri did not. During the territorial period from 1804 to 1821 and the antebellum period of statehood from 1821 to 1861, there were no executions for rape. However, Missouri’s law permitted castration for convicted slaves, and lynch mobs sometimes took the law into their own hands. After the Civil War, the legislature repealed the castration statutes, but in 1879 the state added rape to murder as crimes that could elicit capital punishment.

Well-publicized and sometimes sensationalized hangings revealed the brutal reality of this form of punishment. In 1889, the botched execution of three members of the Bald Knobbers, a band of vigilantes in the Ozarks, drew nationwide newspaper coverage. In Christian County in March 1887, Bald Knobbers shot into the home of one of their opponents and killed two men. Four of the vigilantes, Dave Walker, his son William, Wiley Mathews, and John Mathews, were arrested, tried, and convicted of murder. Wiley Mathews escaped from the jail in the town of Ozark, but the other three were hanged.

Journalists followed the story as citizens from Christian and Taney Counties petitioned Governor David R. Francis for clemency, especially for William Walker, who was not yet eighteen years old. Despite their pleas, the governor denied clemency, and the executions took place in Ozark on May 10, 1889. A large crowd gathered in the town, but only a limited number of witnesses, including reporters, were allowed inside the stockade that enclosed the scaffold. For the next several days, newspapers recounted in bloody detail the agonizing death of William Walker, who fell to the ground, still conscious, with blood coming from his mouth, when his rope broke. 

The spectacle of public hangings and the unequal application of the law stirred doubts about the ethics of capital punishment. Prison reformers throughout the United States questioned whether the death penalty amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment,” which was prohibited by the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution. By the 1890s, it had become difficult to empanel jurors because so many citizens had conscientious objections to the death penalty. Missouri newspapers frequently published articles opposing, supporting, and debating the issue of capital punishment.

During the Progressive Era, the number of executions declined from twenty-eight between 1896 and 1899 to zero in the years between 1917 and 1923. Thomas Speed Mosby, pardon attorney in Governor Joseph W. Folk’s administration from 1905 to 1909, was a vocal critic of the death penalty. Mosby publicly declared his opposition to capital punishment in articles, interviews, and a 1913 book, Causes and Cures of Crime. His efforts were part of a wider Progressive Era movement to reform the treatment of prisoners and improve prison conditions. In 1917 the Missouri legislature abolished the state’s death penalty at a time when most of the public’s attention was diverted to US entry in World War I, but over the next two years public opinion gradually turned against the bill, and the death penalty was reinstated in 1919.

Despite such defeats, the national campaign to abolish the death penalty that began in the Progressive Era continued through the 1930s and had an effect in Missouri. Near the end of his first year as president, Franklin D. Roosevelt announced that he would like to see the death penalty banned throughout the United States. Church groups and religious leaders joined in the effort to stop executions. Missouri lawmakers continued to support capital punishment, but in 1937, Governor Lloyd C. Stark signed a bill that called for execution by lethal gas and put an end to public hangings. County sheriffs would no longer be allowed to conduct executions, which would now only take place in the gas chamber at the Missouri State Penitentiary.

From 1938 to 1965, thirty-nine people died in the penitentiary’s gas chamber. More than half of those executed were Black men. Fifteen were white men, and one, Bonnie Heady, was a white woman. Heady and Carl Austin Hall were executed together for the kidnapping and murder of a six-year-old boy, Bobby Greenlease, from Kansas City in 1953. Heady and Hall killed the child before demanding a ransom of $600,000 from his parents, who paid the money in a desperate attempt to save their son. Heady was the first woman executed in Missouri.

A worldwide movement to end capital punishment grew stronger in the 1950s and 1960s, along with the US civil rights movement. Studies confirmed that in the United States, Black defendants received the death penalty at higher rates than white defendants. Especially in cases of rape, the race of the defendant made a big difference. Several states abolished the death penalty entirely. Missouri did not, but after 1964 rape was no longer a capital offense within the state.

Capital punishment paused across the nation after the US Supreme Court declared all of the states’ death penalty laws unconstitutional in Furman v. Georgia in 1972. Justice William O. Douglas, as part of a five-vote majority, based his opinion on racial disparities in the meting out of justice. He reasoned that the death penalty was “unusual” if it singled out a defendant on the basis of race, religion, or class. A problem that troubled other justices was the capricious nature of juries’ decisions, which were often based on personal prejudices. 

The states, including Missouri, responded to the high court’s decisions by revising their laws, with specific sentencing guidelines that limited juries’ discretion in deciding who would live or die. In 1976, in the case of Gregg v. Georgia, the Supreme Court approved Georgia’s revised statute as a model for other states’ capital punishment laws. The stated goals of the rulings in Furman and Gregg were to eliminate arbitrary sentencing and ensure fair and equitable treatment of defendants.

As time passed, however, Missouri’s sentencing practices evolved in ways that expanded juries’ discretion. In several rulings following Furman and Gregg, the Supreme Court held that states could not prevent juries from weighing any mitigating evidence or any aggravating circumstance that might tip the scales either for or against a death sentence. Missouri’s statute included as aggravating circumstances a depraved state of mind, the commission of a murder in connection with another felony, or the hope of gaining property from the victim. The loose interpretation of “aggravating circumstances” opened the door for uneven jury verdicts. 

The number of death sentences rose sharply in the 1980s, peaking in 1987, when Missouri abandoned the gas chamber for lethal injection. In 1989 the state moved all the inmates from death row at the Missouri State Penitentiary to the Potosi Correctional Center at Mineral Point in Washington County. In that year, Missouri carried out one execution, its first since 1965. By 1989 the population of death row had grown for three reasons: a backlog of cases, an increase in death sentences, and the lengthy process of appealing the death penalty under new statutory guidelines. As appeals were gradually exhausted, Missouri conducted ninety executions from 1989 to 2020.

By the 1980s, a death sentence had become a long stretch in limbo, filing appeals, and waiting for a positive or negative ruling from the courts. Families and friends of murder victims struggled to endure the long legal process. Alan J. Bannister, a death row inmate, wrote in a 1996 memoir that for himself and other prisoners, “This exacts a heavy toll on us, and our families and friends.”

Bannister, who was on parole for rape in Illinois, shot and killed Darrell Ruestman in Joplin on August 21, 1982. Early the next morning, he took a taxicab to the bus station, where police officers arrested him. He had been hired to commit the murder by a friend in Illinois. A jury found him guilty of capital murder and recommended a death sentence. Bannister spent nearly fifteen years on death row before being executed by lethal injection in 1997.

An important Missouri case resulted in a ban on executions for juvenile offenders. In 1993, seventeen-year-old Christopher Lee Simmons and two of his friends broke into the home of a middle-aged woman named Shirley Crook, robbed her, tied her up, drove her to a state park, and threw her over a bridge into the Meramec River, where she drowned. After Simmons turned eighteen, in 1994, a jury convicted him of first-degree murder and recommended the death sentence. 

Nine years later in the case of Roper v. Simmons (named after Donald P. Roper, the superintendent at Potosi), the Missouri Supreme Court vacated Simmons’s death sentence and ruled that, according to an “evolving sense of decency,” the death sentence for crimes committed by juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment. At that time, Simmons received a sentence of life without parole. In 2005, the US Supreme Court reviewed the case and concluded that execution for juvenile offenses was indeed cruel and unusual punishment by modern-day standards. 

From the early nineteenth century to the present, opposition to the death penalty in the United States has waxed and waned. By 2020, twenty-three states had abolished capital punishment, with Wisconsin leading the way in 1853. In the remaining twenty-seven states, including Missouri, the laws changed over time to bring an end to public hangings, prohibit executions for crimes other than murder (notably, rape), close the gas chambers in favor of lethal injection, codify guidelines for juries, and provide opportunities for appealing sentences. Some of these changes, while beneficial, have also brought new forms of misery, such as long waits while capital cases wind through the courts. 

Further Reading

Banner, Stuart. The Death Penalty: An American History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Bannister, A. J. . . . Shall Suffer Death. Brunswick, ME: Audenreed Press, 1996.

Foley, William E. “Testing the Limits of American Justice: Indian Trials in Nineteenth-Century Missouri.” In Missouri Law and the American Conscience: Historical Rights and Wrongs, ed. Kenneth H. Winn, 9–34. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2016.

Frazier, Harriet C. Death Sentences in Missouri, 1803–2005. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2006.

Guillot, Ellen Elizabeth. “Abolition and Restoration of the Death Penalty in Missouri.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 284 (November 1952): 105–9.

Spencer, Thomas M. “The Bald-Knobbers, the Anti-Bald-Knobbers, Politics, and the Culture of Violence in the Ozarks, 1860–1890.” In The Other Missouri History: Politics, Prostitutes, and Regular Folk, ed. Thomas M. Spencer, 31–49. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004.

Published June 13, 2024

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