Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Oliver Watkins, Last Public Execution in Connecticut

One August 2, 1831 around nine o'clock in the morning Oliver Watkins was hung a few hundred feet east of the entrance to my driveway. This was the last public execution in Connecticut, as just after his first trial concluded the General Assembly changed the law to require future hangings to take place behind prison walls.

I knew a bit of this from reading in the past, and I even met an elderly woman (who I can picture clear as day but can't remember her name right now) when I worked at the library whose grandfather had been one of the Constables assisting in the events -- most of which was it was man from Sterling, who murdered his wife, and commented looking at from his jail cell window the morning of the execution that he didn't see why everyone was hurrying, as nothing would happen till he got there.

I found a couple interesting sources on this story that fills in much more detail last month:

A Sketch of the Life, Trial, and Execution of Oliver Watkins"
The Solemn Sentence of Death: Capital Punishment in Connecticut

It seems that Watkins had been carrying out an affair with widower, Waity Burgess, and was under considerable stress from financially supporting not only his own family but hers, compounded by the neglect of his own business by the time spent visiting his mistress. It was an open and notorious relationship -- he was known to start his automatic sawmill in motion in the morning, and while it slowly cut a board (no doubt an up-and-down saw powered by a small brook) he would go visit Burgess rather than attend to affairs around his farm. Waity herself had found herself several times "warned" out of local towns for her affairs with married men in those communities (and indeed before she was ever married had a reputation for chasing men), settling at this time in a house her father helped her rent near his home. (She would be chased out of Sterling, and several more times from other towns, after this incident). Watkins was also known to have a temper -- one story told of him having driven a team of oxen hauling a load of boards so hard on a summer day that while neighbors stopped him before the oxen died, they were broken animals never again fit for draft work. Though professing his innocence, he was found guilty of having strangled or choked his wife to death in her sleep -- with their two youngest children asleep in the same room, and the rest of their children and his wife's parents asleep in the house.

The rise of Prince Hill away from Route 6 forms a bit of a natural amphitheater, and a crowd estimated between six and ten thousand attended the hanging -- the Sheriff left the jail (then located where the Episcopal Church is today) with the prisoner at eight o'clock escorted by four foot companies of militia and part of a horse company. At the gallows, several ministers provided a religious service before a lawyer read a statement where Watkins maintained his innocence, a final invocation of grace was given, and the drop fell.

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