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September 1, 1998

The public hanging of Henry Armstrong in the Noble county courthouse park in 1909 was the subject of this column a while back, and the story remains one of the most intriguing tales to emerge from the early years of this city. More recently, a couple of items have been in other media to bring the saga of Mr. Armstrong to mind once again.

Jim Etter of Bethany, a retired roving reporter for the Daily Oklahoman and the author of several books about state lore, had an interesting letter to the editor in a recent Sunday issue of the Oklahoman. I have met Mr. Etter and I know of his great love of this state. I'm going to quote part of his letter:

"There’s a colorful, albeit gruesome, period of Oklahoma history that apparently has been forgotten: a time when the legal means of execution was hanging. During a stretch (no pun intended) of seven years following statehood, some 30 condemned criminals died at the end of a rope. Oklahoma's first legal hanging --and the state's first legal execution by any means -- is reported to have taken place in June of 1908 in Frederick. The man wearing the noose was Frank Ford, a Tillman county convicted wife killer. The rest of the state's legal hangings occurred in other counties until the gallows was replaced by the electric chair, which reportedly was used for the first time in December 1915 (this was unrelated to the federal hanging in 1936).

"By some oddity, all this usually has been either overlooked or ignored by top journalists when they write reviews of capital punishment, but it can be confirmed by library research and records of the state's Corrections Department. These legal hangings by the state would bring the total number, of legal executions by various means in Oklahoma to 124, and not 94 as recently reported..."

Mr. Etter is a thoroughly competent historical researcher and his comments on this particular grisly topic can be accepted as correct. It's not a subject matter most people want to delve into, but legal executions in our past and also in today's society are part of our story.

Along about the same time as Jim Etter's letter appeared, the Arts & Entertainment (A&E) TV channel had a one-hour history of executions through the centuries, including the bloody Dark Ages. Pondering some of the most bizarre is very unsettling, including those poor souls who were sentenced to be "hanged, drawn and quartered," along with a few additional atrocities on their bodies. The burning of witches in Salem gave us a shameful chapter in this land's early history, as did the busy swish of Parisian guillotines while enemies of the emerging revolutionary French government lost their heads.

Meanwhile, this country sustains the debate on legal executions as a deterrent to crime. Each time a juridical entity in the U.S. carries out the elimination of one convicted of a capital crime, proponents on both sides of the question demonstrate and strive to get their point across. It is something worthy of our most serious consideration and resolution. Even in Henry Armstrong's day there was controversy on the subject. What do you think?