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Execution of Joseph Palmer

The Columbus Dispatch
Wednesday, July 1, 1885
Transcribed by

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The Story of the Kirk Murder, the Crime Which, With the Frustration of Justice in the Case of One of the Perpetrators, Led to the Terrible Cincinnati Riot—The Last Hanging in the Queen City.

Special to THE DISPATCH.:

CINCINNATI, July 15.—The execution of Joseph Palmer (colored) this morning is the last that can take place in this county under the present law which designates the Ohio Peni-tentiary as the place for all future executions.

The execution was private, in the jail yard, the scaffold being shielded from view by the stone wall and a large awning. A large number of people were in the adjacent streets, which were guarded by police. Promptly at 10 o'clock, the condemned was led on the scaf-fold, where a short prayer was said by the priest. Palmer said nothing. The deputy sheriffs were so excited that the could scarcely adjust the rope.

At two minutes after ten, the drop fell but Palmer was such a powerful young fellow, that his neck was not broken. He writhed fearfully, and at the end of 26 minutes the Sheriff announced that the execution was over, but the body was not cut down until some time later.

The crime of Palmer, as the partner of William Berner, was in its consequences the greatest crime of the present day in Ohio or any other State. The suggestion of the farcical Berner trial and the resulting riot recalls to every citizen of Ohio the murder of William Kirk.

Two days after the festivities of Christmas Kirk's body was found in the snow and mud of a ditch near Cumminsville. Adam Fisher was the first to find the remains, and he reported it to the Cumminsville police. A handkerchief was tied over the eyes, a rope was drawn tight about the neck, and two terrible wounds in the skull above the forehead showed that death had been caused by murderous blows.

The body was removed th Habig's and afterward identified as that of William H. Kirk, a sand dealer and horse trader living at 26 Elizabeth street. Some foolish theories of suicide were soon dispelled by circumstantial evidence that caused the arrest of Joe Palmer, who had formerly been a hostler in Kirk's stable. Later Wm. Brenner was arrest on the charge of complicit. Both men made confessions in twenty-four hours.

On Monday afternoon, December 24, Palmer and Berner were working together in Kirk's stable at No. 327 West Ninth street. Both boys knew that Kirk had large sums of money at all times and they had planned to rob and kill him, if necessary. Kirk came in at 4 o'clock that afternoon.

"What do you say?" whispered Berner to Palmer.

"It's a go," replied palmer, and without a word of warning Berner hit Kirk with a heavy hammer. He fell and moaned. Palmer followed up with several blows with a club. Then a rope was tied about the neck and pulled tight enough to bulge the eyes.

The pockets were emptied and $245 found. This was divided, Berner getting the biggest share. Hay was thrown over the body, and at dark the boys drove up with a covered wagon, hired from Charles T. Hayman. The body was put in and taken to the ravine near Cumminsville, where it wa found two days later.

The murderers intended that it should go into the creek and be washed down Mill-creek and into the river. It seems that their motive in tying the rope about the neck was to prevent their victim from moving and to fully preclude any possibility of recovery. After the body had been thrown into the ditch like a bundle of garbage, the young brutes drove back to a saloon at John and Betis.

Here Palmer borrowed a bucket and broom to wash out the blood marks in the wagon. At 8 P. M. the wagon was returned and the boys separated. Palmer went to his home at 128 West Court street, while Berner called on his girl, Miss Tillie Bauman, on John street. Both boys displayed large sums of money to their friends during the next two days, and on Friday enough evidence was collected to cause their arrest.

On Friday night Berner's guilt was so apparent that he made a confession to Captain Devine and signed it the next morning. Palmer waited until 1 A. M. Saturday, when he told his story much as Berner had done, except that he accused Berner of striking the first blow.

There was a good deal of feeling about the murder, yet the public was so well satisfied that both would hang that no demonstration was made. Berner was the son of a German store-keeper, living at 52 Bremen street. He had always been a vicious lad, hard to man-age, and with the bad habits of so many over-the-Rhine boys who attend dances, picnics and concert halls.

His father at once made an effort to save his son's neck. Palmer had on one to befriend him, as he was only a poor negro. His sister was his closest friend in all his trouble. Berner was tried in March, 1884. His defense was conducted by Tom Campbell and M. F. Wilson. Against all the convincing testimony a miserable jury brought in a verdict of manslaughter.

The result is known by everybody, and the days of riot and bloodshed that followed will never be forgotten. It is not necessary to tell of the days when a mob fought the State troops, and beat down the jail doors. After all this excitement Palmer was tried with the grim walls of the ruined Court House frowning upon him. He was convicted on June 24, and sentenced to hang October 10. The Supreme Court, however, decided that the lower court had erred in trying Palmer under the new jury law, and a new trial was ordered. This was begun March 26 last, nearly one year after the riot, with Judge Robertson on the bench and a jury consisting principally of farmers. The proceedings differed but little from the former trial, and resulted in a verdict of murder in the first degree. April 2 Judge Robertson sentenced the prisoner to be hanged Wednesday, July 15. The Supreme Court has since refused to permit another petition in error on Palmer's behalf to be filed, and Governor Headly has refused to interfere, saying that the only arguments that could be advanced in favor of Palmer were, apparently, his youth and the escape of Berner, his partner in the crime, with a twenty-year's sentence for manslaughter. These, in the Governor's mind, were insufficient to warrant interference.

Palmer was almost white, and has manifested a brutal disposition ever since his arrest. During the riot he saved his life from the mob by claiming that he was a white man and that Palmer was upstairs.

"Are you not Palmer?" asked one. Palmer deliberately lighted a match and holding it up to his face said:

"No. Do you not see I am a white man? Palmer is a nigger."

The rioters, deceived by Palmer's sublime cheek, passed on. All that terrible night Berner was at large in the country, but the next day he was recaptured, and, disguised in a Post reporter's clothes, was taken to the Penitentiary, where he is now serving his time in the moulding department.

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