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