If it’s 1888 and your name is John Swarthout, that is. The recipient of this invitation was granted access to the November 15, 1888, hanging of Charles Johnson, convicted of killing John Walters in January 1887. Walters, who worked as a maintenance man at the jail in Seneca County, N.Y., died from blows to the head when some prisoners–Johnson among them–tried to escape.
Unlike Seneca County’s previous public hanging, in 1829, which was attended by some 15,000 people, Johnson’s execution was limited to a select few spectators. The county’s Sheriff, Warren Lerch, wanted to avoid making a spectacle of the execution in order to “attain the privacy which the law enjoins.”
It took the rest of America a while to follow Seneca County’s lead. The country’s last execution to be entirely open to the public would take place a half century later in Kentucky. Rainey Bethea, a young black man convicted of raping and killing an elderly white woman, was hanged on August 14, 1936, in front of an estimated 20,000 people.
Below, see the invitation to Johnson’s execution. For more background on the murder, trial and Johnson’s final trip to the gallows, click here (PDF link.)