The Man Who Was Hanged Twice
Today, Caledonia is a small town with 4,500 residents. Its claim to fame is that it was once the home of Cornplanter, the Seneca leader. It began the nineteenth century as a small settlement called Southhampton. The name gives a clue to its settler origins: “Caledonia” is the Latin word for Scotland, a fitting name for a town built up by Scottish settlers, growing outward from two springs that flowed into a small pond. In 1805, John Cameron moved to the community from Geneva and opened a tavern called “Springs.” It’s there that our story begins. On the afternoon of March 16, 1807, James McLean and William Orr were drinking together in the tavern.
The men left—drinking during the working day was then quite common—to go back to work, building a nearby road with another neighbor, Archibald McLaughlin. As Lockwood Lyon Doty, a local historian, wrote, the events of that afternoon “filled the infant settlement with horror, and made a deep impression on many.”[i] McLean and Orr soon fell into a dispute. It just so happened that the road they were working on ran by the McColl home. Donald McColl, a boy of sixteen, happened to be clearing brush at the time and saw the events clearly, and would later testify to them. Doty described it this way:
McLean grew enraged and suddenly raised his axe and cleft Orr’s skull, killing him almost instantly. Archibald McLaughlin came up a moment after, and stooping down to look at the murdered man, exclaimed in a tone of reproach, ‘Oh…what have you done now!” Without any further provocation he [McLean] raised his axe again, and striking McLaughlin on the shoulder, cut him down to the very heart. Donald McColl…with great boldness and dexterity jerked the axe off McLean’s shoulder and hid it in a thick jungle of hazel bushes. He then fled, as for his life, to the village. McLean pursued him until he found he could not overtake him, and then he hid himself. Meanwhile Donald McColl reached the village frightened almost out of his senses, and gave the alarm. The whole settlement was roused to arrest the murdered.
McLean initially managed to elude his pursuers, a militia led by Judge Ezra Platt, by hiding in the forest. He allegedly secretly received food from his mother. About three weeks later, McLean was captured, but not by the small squads that were still searching for him. He was at a tavern in Canandaigua and was recognized by the landlady, who noted McLean’s unusually long arms (his hands were said to fall below his knees), which had been noted in the “Wanted” poster. She also noticed McLean’s keen interest in reading the “Wanted” poster hanging on the wall of her establishment. She notified Sheriff Benjamin Barton, who arrested McLean and jailed him in Batavia.
In June 1807, McLean was put on trial for the murder of William Orr. McLean was not charged in the murder of McLaughlin, apparently because the prosecution believed that the defense might have argued successfully that Orr was responsible for McLaughlin’s death. Or perhaps the prosecution felt that one successful conviction would suit their purposes, as they were seeking the death penalty. The facts of the case were not much in dispute, then or now. Today, the case is well-remembered for another reason: James McLean was not only the first man to be hanged in Genesee County, but he was hanged twice. In fact, the only real point of contention is: What exactly did James McLean say when the rope broke?
At trial, both Mrs. McColl and her son, Duncan, eyewitnesses, testified to the events leading to the murders of the two men. Mrs. McColl was standing in front of the cabin while her son cleared brush nearby. She believed the argument broke out over William Orr’s felling of a whitewood tree on land which had been claimed by McLean. Other witnesses said that all three men were in fact squatters on land known as the “Forty Thousand Acre Tract,” and that all three had been clearing land to build the new road.
It was well-known that the Scottish community in the area was generally divided into two groups: the Inverness group, which was comprised of the newly-arrived and relatively wealthier group who had purchased property outright, and the Pertshire group, which was comprised of those who had arrived and settled some time earlier on lands known as the “Donation Lands.” Thus the Pertshire group was in effect squatters, who nevertheless worked hard to improve the land they claimed as their own. But the extra-legality of these claims led to considerable strife and disagreement between these two groups, giving rise to numerous arguments.[ii] The evidence suggests that James McLean and Archibald McLaughlin (the second victim) were both of the Pertshire group, while William Orr, the first victim, was from the Inverness group.
In any case, Mrs. McColl said, McLean raised his broad axe and struck William Orr four times, including two fatal blows to the throat, one in the left shoulder, and one in the left side. When McLaughlin reproached McLean, he too was struck down. One fatal blow to the upper back was reported as “cutting him down to the very heart.”[iii] Such a rendering may be rhetorical flourish, as the coroner’s report lists four wounds, none more than two inches deep. It notes as well that Orr sustained two “fatal” wounds, with “a certain axe made of Iron and Steel of the value of fifty cents.”[iv]
Both victims apparently died instantly.
James McLean was found guilty of the murder of Orr and ordered to hang by the neckuntil dead.
James McLean was hung August 28th, 1807 by Sheriff Benjamin Barton in front of a great crowd that gathered to see the first public execution in Genesee County, New York.
On that day, McLean was hung using a new type of apparatus, rather than what came to be known as the conventional gallows, when man was dropped through a trapdoor. In this method, the condemned stood on the ground and a rope—tied to a weight, which was held in place by a bracket—was affixed around his neck. When the weight was dropped, the condemned was hoisted into the air. It was intended to break the neck, as all hanging gallows are intended to do, but if it didn’t, the man would strangle to death. [v]
On this day, when he weight was dropped, McLean was hoisted into the air. But the rope broke, dropping him down onto the ground again — stunned, but very much alive.
Thus was born a story that has been told and retold, such that the truth of what was said by whom has been lost in the mists of time. In one version, McLean eventually got to his feet and said he didn’t want to be hanged again. Nevertheless, a county clerk was dispatched to fetch another rope. During the wait, in another version, McLean remarked, “As I killed two men, I deserve two hangings.” In yet another version, McLean protested a second hanging since he’d been sentenced to be hanged, and he had been. It wasn’t his fault, he argued, if it didn’t take.
It is clear that a debate broke out amongst the spectators. Some said McLean had been convicted of one murder and had already been hung for that, insisting that one hanging was a fulfillment of the law. Others, however, thought differently and informed McLean that “as he had killed two men, he ought to be hung twice.” McLean had in fact been tried and convicted of killing one man.
In any case, the county clerk soon returned with a rope sufficiently strong and after considerable delay, the apparatus was set-up again. McLean was hanged again.
The story of the man who was hanged twice has lived on in media coverage. It seems each new generation wants to hear the story.
The Progressive Batavian recounted the hanging in a Nov. 12, 1880 story:
On August 28th, 1807, over 73 years ago, James McLean was hanged in this village for the murder of Wm. Orr…He was arrested in Canandaigua, and brought to Batavia for trial. The gallows was erected at a point in the rear of where C.H. TURNER & Son’s market now stands, and the stumps of the gallows posts, which, apparently, were made from a black ash tree cut in two parts, stood there, well preserved, for many years.
At the execution a shocking scene occurred, McLean being hung twice. The first time the rope broke, and a bed cord was procured from the house of Chauncey Keyes, which was doubled, and the execution proceeded. The murder created the most intense excitement throughout this region, and the hanging was witnessed by a large crowd composed by people from great distances who assembled to see the murder of Orr avenged. It was the all-absorbing topic of conversation at that time, and the story of the crime and the punishment was told and retold hundreds of times during the succeeding score of years.
Over forty years later, on February 28, 1926—in an article notable for its departure from journalistic form—a newspaper commemorated the event:
Archibald McLaughlin, pioneer farmer, shambling along the newly built road that led south from Caledonia, on that spring day in 1807 little realized that shortly he was to play an unwelcome role in one of the most brutal murders in the annals of Western New York. Could he have seen what was to happen at his destination, it is doubtful he would have hummed a tingling Scottish melody as he moved along the highway.
McLaughlin’s thoughts might well have been on the monumental task in which he had had a hand since he left his native heath in Scotland ten years or so before. But it is more likely that he was thinking of some matters of less moment than that. Nevertheless he could not fail to note all around him the evidences of the struggle that he had, with his fellow-pioneers, conducted during the five years preceding. In those five years, Caledonia had risen from the wilderness.
Caledonia had risen, and it still was rising, when McLaughlin started out on his fatal journey. As he stepped angularly along, he trod the new turned earth of a highway that still was under construction. Five years before, in 1802, the walk that he was taking would have been less pleasant, for he would have been stumbling through a dense forest. The hand of these few hardy Scots had worked wonders….
McLaughlin was not especially a leader in the new community but his figure stands out most clearly through the years in the meager records of what occurred on this spring day in 1807. He was a typical pioneer type. Had he, as he stepped along the highway, bothered, he might have identified the various log cabins he passed on the way. There were the crude homes of the McColls, the McLeans and the Orrs, along with that of his family.
Just what impelled McLaughlin to leave the settlement and start out on foot along the new highway cannot be determined at this late date, but in all probability he was bent on inspecting the work being done. He probably knew that James McLean, an ill-tempered resident of the colony, and William Orr were at work in the road just below the rude cabin home of Duncan McColl, three miles south of the settlement.
Had he stopped for a moment as he drew near the spot where the two were at work he would have seen the muscular form of James McLean, and beside him the person of William Orr. Some distance further on he would have seen Mrs. Duncan McColl, interestedly watching from the distance the workers, at the same time keeping an eye on her youngest child, then three years old. Donald McColl, her elder child, a likely lad of sixteen hardy summers, was at work clearing out some hazel brush through which the highway was to continue.
McLaughlin, if he stopped to look, saw McLean suddenly rise and gesticulated in an enraged frenzy at his fellow workman. Undoubtedly, the stroller started forward on a run when he saw McLean raise his ax above his head, threatening Orr. The fact remains that the blow crashed down before he could reach the scene. Orr fell dead to the ground, his skull cleft from the heavy broad ax in the hands of a powerful man.
Rushing forward, McLaughlin fell to his knees beside the murdered man. McLean, his mind crazed by the sight of the calamity that he had wrought, swung about and smote the kneeling McLaughlin with the bright blade. The heavy ax cut him to the heart.
So it was but the work of a moment, and two lives had been snuffed out…The horror of his acts swept over McLean as he found himself alone in the woods, and he plunged into the wilderness…It is said that during the time he was in jail, he was visited by a clergyman who found him a sincerely penitent man and who was able to convince him that a merciful God would forgive him. In that hope, he met his death. The story is told that the rope broke as McLean’s weight fell. While another rope was being secured, McLean remarked that as he killed two men he deserved two hangings.
McLean was an uncle of Alexander McLean, for many years a member of the police force…Although a century and a quarter has passed, the old McColl homestead has been pointed out as haunted, and superstitious ones imagine that these Scots come back each spring in spirit and reenact this murder.[vi]
[i]Lockwood Lyon Doty, A History of Livingston County, New York, from its Earliest Traditions to its Part in the War for our Union: with an Account of the Seneca Nation of Indians, and Biographical Sketches of Earliest Settlers and Prominent Public Men (Geneseo, New York: Edward E. Doty, 1876), 508.
[ii]Roger Larson, a relative of Archibald MacLachlan, has done considerable research on this case. See http://www.correctionhistory.org/html/chronicl/hangedtwice/jamesmclean.html. Accessed November 15, 2011.
[iii]Details taken from an account on the Genesee County website, accessed June 2011. The page no longer appears to be active. http://www.co.genesee.ny.us/dpt/historian/hangings.html.
[v]Larson, Ibid. For a useful discussion of the term “gibbet” (which Larson uses in a non-standard form), see http://www.executedtoday.com/2008/08/28/1807-james-mclean-twice/. Accessed November 15, 2011.