During the 19th century, more than 90 people were executed in New York State. Three of those executions took place in Elmira.
Henry Gardner – Executed March 1, 1867 for the murder of Amasa Mullock
Henry Gardner was a soldier with the 12th Regiment of the United States infantry stationed at the Pickaway Barracks in Southport. The 24-year-old from Ohio was one of many soldiers who came through Elmira during the Civil War. Amasa Mullock was an old man who was well-known about Elmira. On December 29, 1864, Gardner robbed Mullock of $300-$400 and a watch then beat the man to death with his musket.
Nearly three months later, on March 19, 1865, a group of soldiers were rambling in the woods about a mile and a half from Elmira when they came upon Mullock’s body. His head was terribly mangled and the rest of his body showed signs of violence.
Gardner was the last person seen with Mullock before he disappeared in December. He was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. Hanging was the prescribed method of capital punishment at the time. Gallows were erected in the Chemung County jail yard in Elmira for the execution. Before the sentence was carried out, Gardner spoke to the crowd that had gathered to watch the hanging. He spoke of his misdeeds and declared that “liquor is the ruination of any man.”
The hanging was described as “bungled, horrible and revolting.” Gardner was dropped through the trap three times before finally dying. If that was not bad enough, his body was then turned over to Dr. P. H. Flood, a local Elmira physician. Flood embalmed and mummified Gardner’s body and kept it on display in a glass case in his office for many years. Eventually the body was moved into the cellar of Flood’s home then out to a barn on the property. A group of boys found the body in the barn and stole it. They put it in a vault at the brewery at the foot of East Water Street and set it on fire. Police found the charred remains and briefly investigated the “murder” before discovering that the body was that of Henry Gardner.
Peter H. Penwell – Executed July 20, 1877 for the murder of his wife
Peter Penwell was a resident of the Town of Erin. In December 1871, he married a woman from Toledo, Ohio whom he had known for just a week or two. He was in his late 50s at the time. About five years into their marriage, Penwell became jealous of a “magnetic quack” who was paying a great deal of attention to his wife. As a way to end their troubles as a couple, Penwell and his wife decided to poison themselves with arsenic. He gave his wife a large dose that put her on her sickbed without killing her and he took a smaller dose that was said to have made him crazy. Penwell’s father had died in a madhouse so mental illness was not unknown in the family.
On March 10, 1876, Penwell borrowed a razor from a neighbor, claiming that he needed to shave. He went into the room where his wife lay sick and chopped her to death with an old ax. He then cut his own throat with the borrowed razor. Penwell’s wound was not serious enough to kill him.
When he was first arrested, Penwell admitted to the crime. He said he had committed the murder in a jealous rage. Later he denied killing his wife. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. It was reported at the time that all agreed that he had committed the crime but some questioned the punishment. An Albany newspaper called it a “judicial murder.”
The gallows were constructed in the space between the old and new jail buildings in Elmira and a high board fence was built around the yard to keep out the immense crowd that gathered for the execution. Soldiers from the 110th battalion were even called in to keep the crowd under control.
About 250 people were admitted into the enclosure to witness the hanging. Penwell was attended by three ministers. His last words were of thanks to the sheriff and his family for the kind treatment he had received leading up to the execution. He then turned to the sheriff and said, “I am ready.” Unlike with Gardner’s hanging ten years earlier, Penwell’s execution was flawless and he died almost instantly.
Joseph Abbott – Executed January 6, 1882 for the murder of George Reed
Joseph Abbot was described as “a tall, stoop-shouldered man with a beardless face and an evil look in his deep black eyes.” On September 14, 1879, he robbed a man named Brown of $5.50 and a silk handkerchief on a highway near Rome, New York. He was arrested and taken to Utica. On the way, he made a desperate attempt to escape. He jumped off a rock ledge, swam across a canal, and ran one and a half miles through a swamp before being recaptured. He was sentenced to the Elmira Reformatory for highway robbery.
While incarcerated, Abbott worked in the Reformatory’s hollowware shop making pots and kettles. George Reed was another inmate working in the shop. He was serving time for grand larceny. Some sort of argument took place between Abbott and Reed in the shop on April 10, 1880. Abbott found a 4-foot long, 1-inch diameter iron rod and hit Reed in the back of the head with it. He beat Reed several more time then returned to his work station.
The morning of his execution, Abbott had beefsteak, potatoes, toast, cake, and coffee for breakfast. He spent some time speaking with family, friends, and reporters. Abbott’s brother was by his side but his father was serving a life sentence in Connecticut State Prison for murder. The sheriff read the death warrant inside the jail because Abbott did not want to stand out in the cold listing to anything, then they proceeded to the gallows in the north jail yard. He was attended by three clergymen. Sources report that there were anywhere from 40 to 150 witnesses at the execution.
The 26-year-old’s final words were, “Good bye, gentlemen; in my death you witness a terrible injustice.” Abbott was hanged at 11:15am but his neck did not break. He was left to strangle for about five minutes before losing consciousness. He was declared dead by physicians 14 minutes after the hanging. His body was taken by train to his hometown of Waterbury, Connecticut to be laid to rest.