11 October 2012

Elmer Clawson, Boy Murderer, Part Two

May 12, 1897, 7 o'clock.  Elmer Clawson, 19, sits down to his final meal - steak, coffee, cake, and strawberries.  His stomach is queasy, and he picks at the strawberries.  He is just three hours away from becoming not only the youngest person ever to be executed in Somerset County, but also the first white man to go to the gallows in that place in over a century.



Just one week earlier, the only other death row inmate in the Somerset County jail - black Methodist minister Jacob Johnson - was hung by the neck for eight minutes, then cut down still alive while the doctor waited another eight minutes for him to expire.  Several weeks earlier, Johnson, convicted of robbing and killing Annie Beekman, had foiled Clawson's escape attempt by telling the guard that Clawson had hidden an iron bar in his mattress straw, and had been fashioning a key out of a piece of metal from the leg of the iron bed fame.

No doubt  Clawson was desperate.  Convicted of killing Pluckemin farmer Harry Hodgetts on August 29 of the previous year, all appeals were exhausted and entreaties by leading Somerset County residents to commute the boy's sentence because of his age were unsuccessful.  On the witness stand, Clawson freely admitted that he had discharged his pistol three times, striking his former employer twice in the chest before fleeing on his bicycle.  In fact, Clawson had admitted his crime from the start - even going so far as to tell his family on his way out that fateful morning, that he was going out to kill Harry Hodgetts.

It was this bizarre behavior, and the subsequent testimony of Clawson family members as to the family's history of mental illness, that caused defense attorneys to be hopeful of an acquittal, or at least a sentence of life imprisonment.  Jurors heard from six mental health experts.  Unsurprisingly, the three put on by the prosecutor pronounced Clawson perfectly sane.

After breakfast, Clawson - dressed in black jacket, white shirt, and black tie - had a final meeting with his attorney, and is reported to have said, "I would rather go to sate prison for life, but am not afraid and will go through it all right."

At precisely 10 o'clock, Sheriff Wyckoff, accompanied by Hangman Van Hise, retrieved the prisoner - Van Hise slipping behind Clawson and tying his hands while Wyckoff proceded with final instructions.  They walked to the basement gallows.  Clawson stood on the spot inscribed by a chalk mark on the floor while Van Hise adjusted the silken rope about his neck and lowered the hood over his face.  The execution, including nineteen minutes in the noose, was completed by 10:26.

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