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The Hanging of George W. Sharpe and John Johnson


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Source: Alton Weekly Courier, June 25, 1857

Saturday Morning, June 20, 1857


Yesterday being the day appointed for the execution of the murderers of Jacob Barth, we dispatched one of our Assistants to Edwardsville, in order that from personal observation we might be able to correctly report the proceedings of this melancholy occasion at the earliest moment. The following is as full and concise a sketch as could be prepared after his return late yesterday evening, and contains, we believe, all the particulars in which our readers would likely feel an interest.


The Day and The Crowd

The weather was very favorable, the day being mild and pleasant. The sun shone clear and warm, but not oppressively so; the recent rains had settled the dust, but had not made any mud, and the roads were consequently in good traveling condition. The rarity of capital executions in this part of the country, together with the recent and very exciting history of this case, conspired to draw out a tremendous crowd of people to witness this the last and severest penalty of the law. It was estimated that there were between seven and eight thousand persons present, some of whom had come from a distance of fifty miles. They were of all ages, sexes, conditions and complexions. A large portion of them were Germans - friends, relatives and countrymen of the murdered man. Very much to our surprise, mortification and sorrow, we observed a large number of females among the spectators - we say "females," for we scarcely feel at liberty to designate them as either women or ladies, for we have always thought, and had good reason to think, that every feeling and attribute of a true woman's nature would generate in her bosom an unconquerable repugnance to voluntarily witnessing any such revolting scenes under any circumstances in the world. Many of the females who were at the place of execution yesterday, and who witnessed the infliction of the dreadful death penalty with the same coolness and indifference as the men generally manifested, were young, and would have been pretty anywhere else and under ordinary circumstances. Why they attended, or what could have induced them to be present at all, we cannot possibly conceive; and in recording the fact that they were there, we feel that their loving, and noble, and gentle sex is by that fact disgraced.


The Prisoners

It is already known to our readers that Robert Sharpe, the younger of the two brothers condemned, has been sent to the State's Prison for life, under commutation of sentence by Gov. Bissell. The other two - George W. Sharpe, tried and condemned under the name of George Gibson, and John Johnson, who, until after his trial bore the false name of Edward Barber - have been closely attended by Rev. E. M. West and other clergymen, and have appeared to be truly penitent for their crimes. For several days before their execution, they both seemed fully resigned to their fate, and prepared to meet and try the dread realities of eternity; but yesterday morning Sharpe yielded to despondent and despairing feelings, and seemed to suffer dreadfully with fear and terror during the last few hours of his life. The prisoners were both young, heavy set, and rather good-looking men. They evidently had been possessed of healthy and vigorous frames, capable of performing much labor. In preparation for the last scene of their lives. Sheriff Job had arrayed the unfortunate men in very neat suits of clothing, of the ordinary style and fashion, and of perfect snowy whiteness in every particular; they were also cleanly shaved and looked extremely well. Sharpe had two sisters and two brothers, including the one now in the Penitentiary; Johnson had four sisters and four brothers; the parents of both are all living yet; but no relative or even acquaintance who knew them before they committed the murder was beside them in their last trying hour.


The Procession

At half past one o'clock the Sheriff placed the prisoners in a neat and comfortable hack which had been provided, and in which they were conveyed at a slow pace to the place of execution. The carriage was escorted by a portion of the Madison Guards, under command of Captain J. Sloss, fully armed and equipped. A large concourse of spectators followed, but observed good order and decorum. The procession passed along the main street of the town, through its entire length. The prisoners occupied themselves in singing and prayer all the time after they left the prison.


The Scaffold

The spot chosen for the execution was in a ravine east of town, and on the County Poor House Grounds. The scaffold was a neat and substantial structure, as perfectly adapted to its use as anything could be. It was surrounded by rising ground in every direction, so that every person in the vast assemblage could obtain a perfect and near view of the awful tragedy. An area had been laid off by a temporary enclosure, which was guarded by a detachment of the Madison Guards, under command of Lieut. J. G. Robinson, no one being allowed to enter without the permission of the Sheriff.


The Scene at the Scaffold

After those whose duty or privilege it was had ascended to the platform of the scaffold, Sheriff Jon briefly addressed the assembled multitude. He said he was there in his official capacity to perform an unpleasant duty, in executing upon two of his fellow men the severest penalty provided by our laws for the violation of its enactments. Exceedingly unpleasant as was this duty, it was yet a duty, and should be faithfully performed. The example thus set ought not to be lost upon those who had come to witness it. The persons - and specially the youth - of that vast assemblage should take warning from the terrible fate of the two young men so soon to be hurried to the dread presence of an offended God, and avoid the crimes that so justly and so certainly lead to this terrible end. Rev. E. M. West then spoke at some length in explanation of the manner in which and the reasons why the commutation of the sentence of Robert Sharpe had been petitioned for and granted. We cannot possibly give even a skeleton of his remarks in this issue; perhaps we may do so tomorrow. Mr. West then closed with a brief and earnest admonitory exhortation suited to the occasion. The Sheriff then extended a permission - even an invitation - to the prisoners to address the audience, of which Johnson immediately availed himself. He said he stood before his hearers a cold-blooded murderer, of which crime he had been found guilty, and for which he was soon to be so terribly yet so justly punished. In a few minutes, he and one of his companions in guilt would be suddenly launched into eternity, and sent into the presence of the great God whose laws they had violated, with the blood of their victim yet red upon their hands. But he had a humble hope that he had made his peace with God, and that although his crime had been great, his salvation was sure. His soul was at peace; he had no malice in his heart, and he was ready and willing to meet the Judge of all the earth. His punishment although terrible was just, and he was prepared to meet it. If he had remained at home during his early youth and obeyed the pious instructions of his mother, he would not now have been on the scaffold a condemned murderer. He hoped all the youth who heard him would take warning by his example, he influenced by the counsels of their good and pious mothers, keep out of bad company and bad habits and thus avoid the terrible fate that had so soon overtaken him Johnson spoke with much feeling and earnestness and manifested deep emotion while speaking. His remarks were very appropriate to the occasion, and were listened to with respectful attention.  Sharpe seemed to desire to speak but was so overcome with the horrors of his situation he was unable to do so. Rev. J. B. Corrington then addressed to the audience a few very appropriate remarks. He had once thought that a saving repentance in view of the certainty of death was almost if not quite an impossibility, but in the two interviews he had had with the condemned in prison, he had received grounds for hope that their repentance was thorough and sincere, and of course acceptable. He hoped, however, none of his hearers would trust their salvation to a death-pending repentance. We have positive evidence of the efficacy of but one such; and God had placed this one case on record in His Holy Word that none might despair, and but the one that none should presume. Mr. Corrington closed with a brief but earnest and heart stirring prayer, in which the prisoners, standing and with clasped hands, joined audibly.


The Execution

The prisoners then shook hands with and took an affectionate leave of each other, the Sheriff and his deputies and the attending clergymen. Johnson seemed perfectly composed and met his fate without exhibiting the least symptom of fear or even regret. He stood erect and without trembling, retained the ruddy natural glow of health in his face, and as much firmness and calmness of mind as in an ordinary business transaction. Often he would clasp his hands, and a smile of apparently perfect happiness would overspread his features. He seemed perfectly willing - even anxious, for his last moment to come. When the Sheriff told them to step on the drop, he turned to his companion and said, "George, which side would you rather stand on?" Sharpe was terribly affected, and was really a pitiable object to behold. His eyes seemed to have almost lost all expression, and exhibited nothing but a glassy, death-like stare; his face was ashy pale, and showed no color save a livid purple hue; his hands were alternately and convulsively clasped and raised in supplication, and he constantly gave utterance to heart-rending moans or incoherent prayers. When requested to step forward upon the drop, he obeyed, exclaiming, "O Lord! have mercy on me! I dare not die! I'm afraid I'm not prepared!" The ropes were adjusted round their necks, their arms were pinioned together across their backs, their hands tied, white muslin caps were drawn over their heads, and when all was ready, at a single stroke, Sheriff Jon severed the cord which held the supporters of the drop, and in an instant the unfortunate murderers were suspended in mid air in the agonies of death. They both struggled very much for more than a minute. In about two minutes after, they fell, Johnson ceased to manifest any signs of life. Sharpe continued to struggle, though less and less, for full five minutes. The knot of the noose had slipped round to the back of his head, and the fall had failed to break his neck; he therefore lived until he was literally choked to death. They both fell about five feet, and if the knot had remained in the right position, his neck would have been instantly broken, of course. After having hung full thirty minutes, the bodies were taken down, placed in handsome walnut coffins, and decently buried. Too much praise cannot be awarded to Sheriff Jon for the kind and considerate, yet firm and prompt manner in which he discharged the unpleasant duty that devolved upon him. The independent, manly and conscientious course he has pursued during the exciting and trying scenes that have occurred at our county seat during the past few weeks has won for him a still greater share of the popular favor of his constituents of which he before enjoyed so much.



Mob Violence Threatened

Source: Alton Weekly Courier, May 21, 1857

Upon hearing of the gathering of a mob in Edwardsville for the purpose of administering summary punishment to the three murderers of Baird(?), and of the likelihood that they might be arraigned before the court of Judge Lynch, we dispatched one of our assistants to the scene of action, for the purpose of gathering all the particulars of events as they occurred.  It appears that several hundred of the citizens of the southeastern part of this county, friends and acquaintances of the deceased, hearing that the prisoners were about to take a change of venue, determined to take them from the jail and hang them, without trial. This body of men was composed principally of Germans, fellow-countrymen of the murdered man, and was led on by two men named Smiley and Savage. Between ten and eleven o'clock Monday, the mob entered the town from the south on horses, in wagons, and on foot, to the number of about four hundred. The leaders and some of the other members of the gang wearing red and black flags, with which they marshaled on their blood-thirsty companions. As soon as Sheriff Job received intelligence of their approach, he proceeded to take steps for the protection of the jail. He had placed some twenty or thirty men in and about the jail, and provided them with such arms as could be procured, when the job made a rush towards the building, headed by the leaders, Smiley and Savage, who each bore a flag. When the two leaders had approached as near as it was thought proper they should, the officers and some of the citizens who had resolved to sustain the law at all hazards, headed by Sheriff Job, rushed upon and unhorsed them, taking from them their flags and their arms. Several others of those foremost in the ranks were unhorsed. This determined and bold action appeared to intimidate the remainder to some extent, though threats were still made and continued for a number of hours (the mob neither advancing nor retreating) during which time speeches were made by Messrs. Gillespie, Metcalf, Job and others, in English, and Mr. Krafft in German, assuring the mob that thei action, besides being disgraceful and rebellious, was altogether uncalled for, and caused by the misunderstanding with them that the murderers had taken a change of venue. The speakers assured the mob that no such change had been taken, and that the prisoners should be kept secure from escape. They also assured them that any demonstration against the jail would be met with the most determined resistance by the fifty citizens who had by this time gathered in the prison, and were armed with guns and pistols. These speeches appeared to have a good effect, for soon after, the threats of the rioters began to be less frequent and less savage, and in half an hour the whole gang had left town. A little after five o'clock, the National Guards of this city [Alton], who had been sent for by Sheriff Job early in the day, reached Edwardsville under command of Capt. W. H. Turner - having mustered the company and traveled fourteen miles in less than three hours after receiving the call. All who were present unite in awarding great credit to Sheriff Job, who, backed by Mr. Davis, the Jailor, and many of the prominent citizens of Edwardsville and vicinity, acted with great calmness, prudence, and decision, and thus avoided a serious disturbance, if not the effusion of blood. Capt. Turner immediately placed a guard of men around the jail, and will thus keep the prisoners protected until after the trial, which will occur in a day or two. Everything was quiet up to five o'clock yesterday afternoon, the date of our last advices, but Smiley and Savage were both in Edwardsville, and another outbreak is expected.


Confession of the Murderers [From the Edwardsville Advertiser]

Source: Alton Weekly Courier, June 4, 1857

On Saturday last, the day after the jury had rendered a verdict of guilty in the case of the People vs. Gibson, Barber and Watson for murder, the prisoners made a full and free confession of their guilt, in having committed the murder. They stated that they first saw the deceased at the tollgate between Collinsville and Troy, when they requested him to let them ride, he answered that they should not unless they first paid him; he then passed on and they continued on their way to Highland, where they were going in search of work. They admit having passed deceased near Troy, and to having stopped at Troy as testified to by witnesses. They further state that they next saw Barth just as they crossed the bridge beyond Troy, when without premeditation they, on the spur of the moment, concluded to kill him because he had refused to let them ride. They deny having demanded his money, and declare that they did not commit the act with an intention to rob. They further state that the weapons used were an old U. S. musket and a six-barreled revolving pistol. The defendant who called himself Barber says he shot Barth with the musket, and Gibson shot at him four times with the pistol. They all agree in the statement that the defendant Watson took no part in the shooting, but was sitting on a log behind them on the road. Seeing the oxen of Mr. Ensminger coming, they ran down the creek in the direction and in the manner stated by witnesses. Those who were in search of them were at different times within twenty or thirty feet of them. They told where the gun and the carpet sack were hid, since which time our Deputy Sheriff, T. J. Prickett, and William D. Davis, have found and brought them to town. Barber admits that he walked a little lame, on account of the right boot hurting his foot. The carpet sack contained one shirt, two Bibles, one Testament, a copy of Barter's Saint's Rest, and a Hymn book. We have obtained a full history of the three, and a full and separate confession of each, which will be published in due time. Their three names are George Sharp and Robert Sharp, who are brothers, and John Johnson.


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