President Grover Cleveland Was Also An Executioner

By Jeff Kelly on Thursday, September 26, 2013
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“Public officers are the servants and agents of the people, to execute the laws which the people have made.” —Grover Cleveland

In A Nutshell

If you know Grover Cleveland for anything, it’s that he was the 22nd and 24th President of the United States, making him the only president to serve non-consecutive terms, and that he had a funny name. What you probably didn’t realize was that earlier in his life, he actually acted as a hangman for his county and performed an execution.

The Whole Bushel

Grover Cleveland was the 22nd (and 24th) President of the United States of America. He has never been a particularly well remembered president, standing out mainly for sharing a name with a Muppet and for being the only president who ever served two non-consecutive terms in office. However, there’s something else pretty fascinating in his past: he was an honest to God hangman.

That’s right, Cleveland actually bears the nickname “The Buffalo Hangman” because he personally performed multiple executions while serving as the sheriff of Erie County, New York in the 1870s. He was in his 30s at the time, and the first fateful event took place in September 1872 when a man named Patrick Morrissey was convicted of killing his mother.

Cleveland could have passed the duties off to a deputy, but despite not necessarily being on board with execution, he carried out the task himself. It would not be the last time he would act as hangman, either, having also personally executed a man named John Gaffney on February 14, 1873.

Of course, Cleveland could hardly turn down the task considering the office of sheriff in Erie County was one of the most well-paid public offices around in that day and age. He was reportedly making $20,000 per year, which is primarily what brought the young Cleveland to agree to take the office in the first place. And that was in the 1870s: The modern-day equivalent would be more than $350,000.

Before Cleveland took on the role of sheriff, his predecessor had actually passed all of the responsibilities for executing, well, executions to his deputies. Cleveland simply was not having that. The deputy who had performed the previous executions was growing weary of taking lives and felt some serious shame and embarrassment for bearing the nickname “Hangman Emerick.”

By most accounts, Cleveland grew ill after carrying out his first execution, but the fact that he took on the role of executioner to spare his deputy any further moral crises should be more than enough to earn him at least a little bit of respect—respect not always given by the history books.

Show Me The Proof

NY Times: When Grover Cleveland Acted As A Hangman
The Execution of John Gaffney at Buffalo, NY 1873

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  • Randolfo

    The ‘Morgan Bonds’

    by Ben Macri, Vassar ’99

    In February 1895 President Grover Cleveland was forced to strike a deal with J.P. Morgan which saved the United States Gold Reserves. At the time the United States was in the midst of a terrible depression and Cleveland’s popularity was rapidly dwindling. Cleveland had continued to support the traditional gold standard while his party gradually jumped ship and merged with the Populist, bimetallic platform.

    Understanding the crisis that the nation would undergo if the United States gold reserves disappeared, J.P. Morgan, magnate/financier, offered to help the government. Morgan (with a profit clearly in mind) offered to form a syndicate (headed by himself) which would buy bonds from the United States in exchange for 62 million dollars worth of European gold. Cleveland, unable to see an alternative, and realizing that it would be a matter of days before the gold reserves disappeared completely, agreed to the plan, and organized the bond sale. With the deal settled, the dollar managed to recover some of its value, and Cleveland could rest easy, knowing that the gold reserves were safe.

    However, when news of this deal broke, public opinion turned against Cleveland even more than before. Most people ignored the fact that Cleveland had saved the United States’ gold reserves. When people learned how profitable the deal turned out to be for the banks, who had immediately resold the bonds at marked-up rates, more contempt confronted Cleveland. There were even rumors that he had profited personally from the deal. The issue only helped to accelerate the decline of the Gold Democrats.

    Populists jumped all over the issue, shouting that it was yet another example of Washington being in league with the international banks and Wall Street. To the Populists it was the perfect example of a conspiracy against the common man. There was an Anti Semitic thread to their argument as Populists railed against the Rothschilds House (a bank which was a member of the syndicate) as the source of the conspiracy, trying to suggest that Washington and Wall Street were in the hands of the Jewish banking houses of England, and that soon all of America would be as well.

    Cleveland stood quietly by, trying to maintain his dignity as the public condemned the only decision he could have made given the circumstances. He and the few remaining Gold Democrats watched as even more of their party ran to the bimetallic platform, and waited silently, through the 1896 election, to see what the fate of their party would be.

    In 1890 John Pierpont Morgan (1839-1913) inherited the business of his father, Junius P. Morgan, in 1890, one of the nation’s leading financiers. The younger Morgan became a leading philanthropist and one of the nation’s wealthiest men.

    “Both attacked the President on the score of his negotiations with the foreign syndicate, Mr. Wolcott going to the extent of using some very coarse language. Mr. Lodge, who is coming to be known as a Senatorial pettifogger, devoted a half hour to abuse of the President, while professing to be in favor of the Hill resolution.” From The New York Times, February 17, 1895.

    “There was no longer any common ground for understanding between the silver and gold forces; and the agrarian regions were suffering too keenly to reason calmly. Bryan, denouncing the sale in the House, had the clerk first read Shylock’s bond. The World declared that the syndicate was composed of bloodsucking Jews and aliens. […]. By hundreds of thousands, hard handed Americans believed that Cleveland and Carlisle [Cleveland’s Secretary of Treasury] had sold the credit of the republic to the Morgans and the Rothchilds, and had pocketed a share of the price. Their vituperative anger was additional evidence of a sectional and class bitterness that now made even armed revolution seem far from impossible. But Cleveland… was unmoved by abuse when he felt he had done right.” Allan Nevins, from Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage (p.665-666).

    “…the blame lay upon the President. If he had saved the gold standard, he had not saved the country. But he never regretted his action. Years after his retirement, he said so. By that time no one was likely to accuse him of profiting from the deal himself, but he was still not forgiven for allowing the financiers to profit or for holding to gold when easy money was about to be achieved.” Rexford G. Tugwell, from Grover Cleveland (p.259).

    Cartoons on the Morgan Bonds
    (see also Antisemitism, on the Rothschilds)
    6 August, Sound Money
    20 August, Sound Money
    13 October, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
    15 October, Rocky Mountain News
    31 October, New York Journal

  • Micho Rizo

    Learned some new useless knowledge……….thanks listverse!!

  • Frazzu

    Ah, the good ole days.