Sunday, April 16, 2023

The Last Legal Hanging in America

Justice at 12:04 A.M.

By Robert A. Waters

 June 12, 1979. Midnight. Delaware Correctional Center in Smyrna.

The cold wind snapped Billy Bailey’s jacket as about a dozen spectators watched him trudge up the stairs of a makeshift gallows. Two prison guards escorted him to the platform where his sentence would be carried out. They wore black jumpsuits, black hoods and black baseball caps to hold the hoods in place. Prison warden Robert Snyder, also wearing black, waited near the center of the scaffold. Bailey, about five feet tall and weighing more than 200 pounds, seemed not to notice the noose swinging in the wind. In fact, he never seemed to notice or care about anything, much less the pain he inflicted on humanity during his sordid life.

Mary Ann Lambertson, daughter-in-law of murder victims Gilbert Lambertson, 80, and wife Clara, 73, was one person struggling with mental pain caused by Bailey’s actions. He’d broken into the couple’s modest farm home near Dover and shot-gunned them. Mary Ann, working nearby, heard the blasts and witnessed Bailey fleeing across a fifty-acre field. Racing to the home, she found Gilbert, half his face blown off, and Clara, with gaping holes in her shoulder and abdomen. Her hand had a gunshot wound, too, as if she’d raised it to try to ward off the buckshot tearing into her soul. Even years later, Mary Ann could not forget that wrenching scene.

In the frigid air, Mary Ann spoke to reporters. “I think it’s really past time this [execution] should have come about,” she said. “It’s been too many years. When they know for a fact that someone did something, it shouldn’t take 16 years to execute him.”

For most of his life, Billy Bailey had been a terror to almost everyone who came in contact with him. He’d been imprisoned six times, and when he killed the Lamberstons, should have been on a prison work detail. However, he escaped due to a clerical error. Within minutes of going on the lam, he attempted to hold up a liquor store. When the clerk refused to give him money, he tried to shoot her with a .25-caliber pistol. The gun jammed, and he ran from the store carrying a bottle of liquor in one hand and the pistol in the other.

Less than an hour later, Bailey ended up at Lamberston’s Corner.

Gilbert and Clara raised soybeans for a living. Gilbert’s father had farmed the same land and, when he died, the couple inherited his property and home. They raised their children there. Clara liked to make jams and jellies for friends, and both attended church regularly. They were country people with country values. In the scheme of life, it seemed unlikely that they would fall prey to a hardened criminal like Billy Bailey.

Newsman Karl Vick described the execution: “The guards led [Bailey] onto the trapdoor, placed a strap around his ankles and pulled a black hood over his head and upper chest. The noose was fastened over the hood and tightened beneath Bailey’s chin.

“Several times, Snyder felt at the hood to be certain that the top of the hangman’s knot lay beneath Bailey’s left ear, the placement old Army regulations specify to assure the straightening rope has the best chance of bringing quick death by severing the spinal cord. Finally, the warden stepped back and pulled a gray wooden lever with both hands.

“The trap door opened with a thump. Five feet of manila rope followed through the hole and snapped taut 10 feet above the sodden ground.”

Guards quickly placed a canvas tarp in front of Bailey, hoping to conceal the body as it spun in the wind. As friends and relatives of the victims watched, their thoughts may have drifted back in time to a loving couple who had lived ethical lives and died violent deaths. Dennis Lambertson, grandson of the victims, certainly had those thoughts. “One of them watched the other one get blown away,” he said. “They were kind of old, feeble people. My grandfather kind of wobbled when he walked.”

Billy Bailey chose hanging over a poison needle, which was his right at the time he committed the murders. He is said to have commented, "I don't want to be put down like a dog." There will be no more hangings in Delaware since, by law, any new execution will be done by lethal injection.

Whatever anyone thinks about the death penalty, Billy Bailey has never hurt another person since that cold night in June.

NOTE: Much of the information for this story came from the excellent Washington Post article, “An Execution in the Old Way,” by Karl Vick. I also consulted court documents and numerous newspaper articles from the period.

Friday, April 7, 2023

Engineer in 1890 Train Derailment is Immortalized in Song

Story of the Folk Song “Engine One-Forty-Three”

By Robert A. Waters

Trains have always thrilled the hearts of songwriters. “Wabash Cannonball,” “Casey Jones,” “Wreck of the Old ’97,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” and “City of New Orleans” are just a few popular railroad songs. Like almost all folk songs, there are many different versions of the tune, “Engine One-Forty-Three.” This post will use Townes Van Zandt’s version, called “FFV.”

The title “FFV” means Fast Flying Virginian, or Fast Flying Vestibule. The song is about a train wreck that occurred in West Virginia, killing its engineer, George Alley.

Here is the entire newspaper report from the Staunton Vindicator, published October 31, 1890:

Fatal Accident

“On Thursday morning last, about two miles this side of Hinton, the C & O vestibule train ran into a rock which had fallen on the track. The engine, tinder, baggage car and postal car went off the track, the baggage car and tinder going over the embankment. The engine turned over. Engineer George W. Alley of Clifton Forge had an arm and leg broken, and was so badly scalded by the escaping steam that he died before his wife, who had started from Clifton Forge when she heard the news, could get there.

Fireman Lewis Withrow was badly scalded on the neck, arm and side and S. Foster, an extra fireman on his way home to Staunton, was slightly bruised. Engineer Alley’s remains were taken to Clifton Forge and the funeral took place from the Methodist Church there, of which he was a member, on Friday. He leaves a widow and three children. The train had slowed some in turning a curve or it is probable it would have gone over into the Greenbrier River. The track walker, it is said, had crossed over the spot a few minutes previous to the accident and found it clear.”

The Chesapeake and Ohio train ran daily between New York, Washington, D.C., and Cincinnati. Alley’s father and five brothers worked for the railroad.

The Making of a Folk Song

Folk songs usually have a grain of truth, but some can also stretch truth to the outer limits—as happened in this case. “FFV” suggests that George was speeding. There was no indication of that. In fact, he had slowed as he came toward a bend, which may have saved many lives. The song states that George’s mother warned him about speeding. That did not happen as she had died years before. The actual number of the train was 134, not 143. The song states that the train ran off the tracks and hit a rock, but that is inaccurate: the boulder lay on the tracks so there was no way Alley could have avoided it. While his last words may well have been, “Nearer my God to thee,” it’s unlikely that he told anyone he wanted to die along with his engine. In fact, he was said to be asking for his family as he slipped in and out of consciousness. The description of George’s injuries was fairly accurate.

I've always loved this song. No one knows who wrote the initial version, although it has been speculated that a worker for C & O was the author.

Here are the lyrics, as sung by Texas troubadour and songwriter, Townes Van Zandt. Click the FFV link to listen to the song.


Well, along come the FFV, the swiftest on the line,

Runnin’ on the C & O road twenty minutes behind.

Runnin’ into Seville, headquarters on the line,

Receiving their strict orders from the station just behind.


Well, Georgie’s mother come to him with a bucket on her arm,

Saying, “My darling boy, be careful how you run.

Well, it’s many a man has lost his life in tryin’ to make lost time,

But if you run your engine right, you’ll make her just on time.”


Aw, but off the road she darted and into the rocks she crashed,

Well, the engine she laid upside down and Georgie’s breast was smashed.

His head lay against the firebox door and the flames were rollin’ high,

“Well, I’m proud to be born for an engineer on the C & O road to die.”


Well, the doctor come to Georgie, “My darlin’ boy be still.

Your life can yet be saved it is God’s blessed will.”

“Oh no, no, it will not do, I want to fly so free,

Well, I want to die with the engine I love, one-hundred-and-forty-three.”


Then the doctor said to Georgie, “Well, your life cannot be saved,

Murdered out on the railroad and laid in a lonesome grave.”

His face was all covered up with blood and his eyes they could not see

And the very last words that Georgie spoke were, “Nearer my God to thee.”


Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Case of the Doll-like Corpse

Murder of a “Government Girl”

By Robert A. Waters

By October, 1944, the momentum in World War II had begun to shift to the Allies. Yet, with hundreds of American soldiers still dying every day, the United States War Department continued to hire workers to help defeat the Nazis and Japanese.

Shortly after graduating from high school, Dorothy Berrum passed the civil service exam and left Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin for Washington, D.C. Seventeen-years-old, the newly-hired clerk stood only four feet, six inches tall and weighed just 85 pounds. Despite her appearance, she quickly made friends at Arlington Farms, the War Department dorm where she lived, although friends lamented that the young teenager from the mid-west seemed naïve to the wiles of the city.

She’d been in DC for only three months when she vanished.

A few hours later, in the early morning of October 6, two employees of the East Potomac Park golf club discovered Dorothy’s corpse. She lay face-up in wet grass near the sixth hole. The Washington Evening Star reported that “her face bore bruises and scratches, indicating the victim had put up a fierce struggle before her assailant choked her. Coroner A. Magruder MacDonald said death had been caused by strangulation and that she had been criminally assaulted.” Because of her diminutive size, some reporters described her as “doll-like.”

According to the Washington Daily News, cops “found that the girl had been strangled with her own turban gaudy strip of blue, white, green and purple cloth. The body had been clad in a brown dress covered by a red coat buttoned from top to bottom. Later, it was discovered that the victim’s underclothing was torn. She had been raped, it appeared, then strangled.”

Investigators surveyed the crime scene and, about forty yards away, discovered a belt with a bent buckle. Cops knew it would have been standard issue on a Marine Corps uniform. After collecting the belt for evidence, detectives began attempting to identify the victim. A class ring on her finger provided the clue they needed. The ring came from McDonnell High School and had the initials “D. B.” engraved into it. Cops searched several databases and found a McDonnell High School in Wisconsin. After identifying Dorothy Berrum, they had the task of informing her parents that their daughter had been murdered.

The now-grieving parents had been skeptical all along about Dorothy’s move to the big city, but there was no stopping her. In letters home, she emphasized that she was pleased with her new place in the world. 

On the evening of October 5, the “government girl,” as newspapers would soon label her, arranged to meet two girl friends at the corner of 10th Street and D Street, N.W. When neither friend showed up, a stranger who identified himself as Earl McFarland struck up a conversation with Dorothy. Sporting a neatly pressed Marine Corps uniform, he told her he had fought in Guadalcanal and was on the home front recovering from malaria. (That was true, but he neglected to tell her he was married, had two children, had been arrested for several crimes, and had served two years in prison.)

At 9:15 p.m., they hailed a taxi. She and McFarland got in the back seat, and the driver heard Dorothy tell her companion she was hungry. He asked where she would like to eat and she said, “The Hot Shoppe.” The restaurant, famous locally for its “Mighty Mo,” a triple decker hamburger, and root beer floats, was a few miles away. McFarland told the cabbie, Harold Thomas, to take them in that direction.

The next morning, Thomas saw the girl’s picture on the front page of the newspaper and contacted investigators. The young college-age cab-driver told detectives that after Dorothy had mentioned the Hot Shoppe, the soldier “asked me to have a cigarette and leaned over and whispered in my ear to take them around Hains Point.” Once there, McFarland told him to stop, paid the tab, and exited with Dorothy. Before leaving, Thomas heard the girl ask, “Why are we stopping here?” The cabbie informed investigators that after he let the pair out, he found a switchblade knife in the back seat.

Detectives made a beeline to the Marine Corps barracks located in the city. They had three questions for USMC personnel: Who had been out on pass the night of October 5? Who had lost a knife? And who had lost a belt? The answer to each of those questions turned out to be twenty-four-year-old Earl Jackson McFarland, formerly of Knoxville, Tennessee.

While being interrogated, McFarland lied about everything. He claimed the belt was not his. He wasn’t even wearing a belt on October 5, he said. Another soldier at his barracks contradicted McFarland’s claim and produced a photograph taken in a “quickie joint” earlier on the day of the 5th. The picture showed a grinning McFarland wearing the belt. What’s more, investigators saw that the buckle had been bent exactly like the one they had in evidence.

McFarland denied the knife was his. He told police he did not know the girl and had never met her, contradicting the cabdriver’s statement.  

And it turned out that even his name, “Earl McFarland,” was an alias. Earl Jack Dills was his real moniker. He had changed names when he enlisted in the military to hide his criminal past.

Detectives suspected McFarland of another murder in the city. Mrs. Margaret Fitzpatrick had been brutally raped and murdered just three weeks before Dorothy Berrum’s corpse was discovered. A friend identified McFarland as the last person to see Margaret alive. He was indicted for that murder but never tried.

As McFarland awaited trial, detectives tracked down the history of the mysterious “switchblade” knife. Marine private John S. Holzberger identified the knife as the one he lent to McFarland while they served in Guadalcanal.

United Press reported that “a Federal Grand Jury today indicted Pvt. Earl McFarland, 21-year-old Marine veteran of Guadalcanal on three counts—each punishable by death—in connection with the slaying of 18-year-old Dorothy Berrum.”

Shortly after being housed in the Washington jail, McFarland and another inmate escaped. An investigation showed they had charmed their way into the guards’ confidence. The website Execution Today states that during a card game played in one of the guards’ rooms, “they imprisoned their jailers, nicked their clothes, and cut their way into a ventilation shaft and out to the roof.” While the other inmate was quickly captured, McFarland spent eight days on the run before being tracked down in Knoxville.

Meanwhile, newspapers began receiving letters criticizing the military for "snatching" girls from all over the country to work in the dangerous city of Washington. One newspaper editor wrote: "The problems imposed by a tremendous wartime influx of young women have been discussed for months but the discussion has reached a new peak in press, pulpit and among government workers themselves since the tragedy of Dorothy Berrum."

McFarland's trial began on January 8, 1945. Defense attorneys produced three psychiatrists who testified that their client was mentally ill. However, the strategy didn't work. Circumstantial evidence prevailed and the former Marine was convicted and sentenced to death. That sentence was upheld by the U. S. Court of Appeals stating that the evidence “clearly established his guilt.”

He was executed in the electric chair on July 19, 1946.