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Newspaper accounts describe 19th and 20th century justice in Washington County

July 18, 2008|By JOSHUA BOWMAN

HAGERSTOWN -- Before photographs, newspaper reporters often relied on colorful language to paint pictures for readers.

Nowhere was this more prevalent than in stories about hangings, which were laced with graphic descriptions, opinion and vivid phrases.

One of those phrases, "launched into eternity," was the title of a free lecture presented Thursday night at the Hager House by the City of Hagerstown.

The lecture used newspaper accounts to revisit some of the hangings that happened in and around Washington County in the 19th and 20th centuries.

"Without photographs, writers relied on painting sensational stories with words," said John Bryan, historic sites administrator for the City of Hagerstown, which runs the Hager House. "As photographs gained prominence, you saw it less and less."

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There were 291 hangings in Maryland between 1683 and 1961, Bryan said. Of those, only three took place in Washington County, he said.

The first hanging discussed was that of John McKeen, who was hanged in 1807 for the murder of his wife, whom he killed while he was drunk, according to a story in the paper.

An account of the execution, which took place in December 1807, barely one month after the homicide took place, describes McKeen's "melancholy exit, agreeable to the sentence, of the miserable John McKeen," Bryan read.

Newspapers often included detailed descriptions of wounds in crime stories, Bryan said.

A story about the case of James Hunter, who was executed in 1818 for the murder of Henry Haagy, describes the wound created when Hunter struck Haagy with a scythe.

"The scythe laid bare the breastbone ... exposing the jugular vein with a wound of nearly 9 inches," Bryan read.

Hangings were treated as public outings that could draw several thousand people, Bryan said.

The triple hanging of William Cotterill and his sons, William Jr. and John, drew about 15,000 spectators, Bryan said.

The Cotterills were convicted of killing and robbing a man in Allegany County.

The trial and hanging were moved to Washington County when a change of venue was requested.

Although the father was convicted only of accessory, he was hanged with his sons, Bryan said.

"It was a harsher time," Bryan said.

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