At the Raymond Street Jail in the City of Brooklyn, New York State’s last execution by hanging took place 120 years ago last week. German immigrant John Greenwall, a tailor by trade and a thief by rap sheet and reputation, was hanged for the murder of Manhattan hat firm senior staffer Lyman Smith Weeks during a burglary of the victim’s DeKalb Avenue home on March 15, 1887. After Greenwall’s hanging Dec. 6, 1889, all capital sentences in the state were carried out by electrocution. To note that date marking the transition from “the noose” to “the chair” in capital punishment history, the New York Correction History Society (NYCHS) has unveiled a two-part online presentation entitled “Brooklyn Jail Scene of NYS’ Last Hanging Execution 120 Years Ago Dec. 6th” that examines the case in detail. The study raises questions about the prosecutorial conduct and judicial rulings that resulted, after two trials, in the condemned man’s state-implemented death.
The presentation also relates how Greenwall’s jail staff friend, an African-American porter, attempted to prove the convict innocent in a most bizarre way. Also, how the jail’s Catholic chaplain purchased a burial plot for Greenwall in East Flatbush’s Holy Cross Cemetery where 27 years later the priest himself was buried, having died a few days after being victimized by a anarchist’s attempt to poison hundreds at a Chicago dinner to honor a newly-named archbishop. Photo: The Raymond Street Jail which closed July 20, 1963. Photo from Page 36 of NYC Dept. of Correction 1956 annual report, courtesy New York Correction History Society.
To mark this December month of Cattaraugus County’s Bicentennial, the website of the New York Correction History Society (NYCHS) is unveiling a multi-page timeline presentation on the executions of 12 men convicted of murder in that “Enchanted Mountains County” of southwestern New York.
Besides detailing the 12 murder cases individually, the timeline presentation also serves as a vehicle to explore interesting historical developments that provide wider context to the cases. These include looking at the histories of the county jails, sheriffs, and courts as well as at execution methods and at other Cattaraugus-related murder case convictions not resulting in executions. The timing of the presentation’s unveiling is appropriate because the first and the last Cattaraugus murders resulting in executions took place during Decembers 70 years apart. The first happened Dec. 18, 1869- the last, Dec 9, 1939.
Of the 12 men executed, two were hanged at the Little Valley Jail (both involved December murders, 14 years apart), four were electrocuted at Auburn Prison, and six were electrocuted at Sing Sing.
Next to each date on the timeline appears a very brief entry outlining the case. Under each entry appears a link line “For more details.” Clicking that link line accesses a page providing an in-depth account of the case.
In addition to the case narration and explorations of historical contexts, the individual case pages include notes discussing source materials used. The source notes sections are provided so that others interested in pursuing further research can have starting points for beginning their quests.
The NYCHS project was undertaken with the encouragement, support and assistance of Cattaraugus County administrator Jack Searles and County Historian Sharon Fellows. Thomas McCarthy is the NY Correction History Society’s general secretary and webmaster.