The Hangman Comes to Town

William Gross, 27 years old, was hanged on February 7 or 17, 1823 in Logan Square known at the time as North West Square, one of five public squares set aside in 1682 by William Penn for the people of Philadelphia.  His was the last public hanging in the City.

 

Gross, in a jealous rage, stabbed to death his mistress Kesiah Stow, who was keeper of a notorious bawdy house. He was quickly apprehended; he showed remorse and was resigned to his fate.  On the scaffold he was calm and spoke out against gambling, dancing, and the bad company he had kept. Pamphlets that included a note to his dead mother, a description of his prison experience, and a hymn to be sung at his hanging were passed out to the gathered crowd.

Watercolor, David Johnson Kennedy,

 Logan Square from Vine Street looking toward Market Street in 1836

courtesy Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Fourteen years later in 1837 James Moran was hanged in the sprawling estate of Bush Hill, probably in a field near 17th and Coates Street (Fairmount Avenue).  While public hangings had been abolished in Philadelphia with the hanging of William Gross, public executions continued outside the City's northern boundary of Vine Street. It was not until 1854 that the neighborhood of Matthias Baldwin Park was incorporated into the City of Philadelphia.

 

Moran had been held at the newly constructed Eastern State Penitentiary located at Coates Street (Fairmount Avenue). A sailor from Southampton, England, he signed on with a small crew on an American schooner that left Boston bound for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. On the high seas, Moran stabbed and killed the Captain.  He was convicted at the age of 19 for the capital crime of piracy.

 

An unusually large crowd of 20,000 gathered for his hanging on May 19, 1837.  The Philadelphia Public Ledger printed on the morning of his execution:  "Public executions are of rare occurrence in this country, and in this case, the act is attended with peculiar solemnity.  The youth, fresh blooming into manhood, offers up his life as an atoning sacrifice...A pamphlet containing the Trial, Life and Confession of James Moran we understand will be published this morning."

 

It may seem strange that Moran was not held in a federal prison for his maritime crime but according to Annie Anderson, Manager of Research and Public Programming at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, there were no federal prisons until after 1900 when three federal prisons were built:  Atlanta, Georgia; Leavenworth, Kansas; and McNeil Island, Washington State.*

*  Addendum  Places Used for Execution in Philadelphia from Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania in the olden times, vol. 3, p.164:

 

Before the American Revolution: Centre Square (City Hall).

Windmill Island for pirates and offenders against the United States.

After the American Revolution up to 1823:  Logan Square.

Bush Hill for public execution of persons convicted of crimes against the U.S.

After the passage of the Law of Pennsylvania Prohibiting Public Executions, offenders convicted of capital crimes were hung in the Yard of Moyamensing Prison.

Centre Square 1828, current site of City Hall

Windmill Island, off Walnut Street in the Delaware River

In 1838 the original unitary island had a canal dredged through it for the ferry between Philadelphia and Camden. Windmill Island became the southern island.

In 1897 both islands were dredged away to allow better shipping.

Moyamensing Prison, 10th and Passyunk

completed 1835, in use until 1963, demolished 1968

Most famous hanging here was in 1896 of serial killer H. H. Holmes of The Devil in the White City fame.

PUBLIC SQUARE vs. PUBLIC PARK

 

The words "park" and "square" are used interchangeably today but not originally. For centuries public squares defined urban living.  They were the heart of public life for the ancient Greeks with their Agoras; Ancient Rome with its Forum and Medieval Europe with its market squares.  Business and politics were conducted; issues debated; plays and books discussed; citizens rich and poor exchanged opinions in the square.

 

Men reported for military duty or to hear declarations from the King or Council. Public punishment such as hangings were dealt to criminals.  Foreigners, convicted criminals and the poor might be buried in the square. In 1890, a plumber uncovered a coffin with human remains on the north edge of Logan Square.  Later 60 intact graves were found in Sister City Park, which was once part of the original North West Square.

 

Parks began as private parks that belonged to the English nobility and aristocracy to be used for their recreation, hunting, and contact with nature. They were large and extensive properties, reinforcing the social status and natural dominion of the gentry over the common man. These private parks often disrupted rural communities by taking away farming lands, accessible pasture and woods from the peasants. Communication routes that had existed for centuries were destroyed.  Parks restricted public spaces.  They were exclusive. Squares were inclusive and reaffirmed our commonality.

 

After World War I, the private parks of the aristocrats began to disappear.They were unsustainable. Few could afford them.  Over time the idea of private parks to be used only by wealthy landowners was replaced by public parks for the common man.

 

Meanwhile the square had undergone its own transformation in the 1800's with the  rising power and growth of the middle class and women. Squares became genteel gardens.  The hard surfaced square where men of all classes rubbed shoulders with one another became softer where "newly middle class women with parasols strolled and listened to brass bands."  Flower beds, fountains, benches, bandstands, ornamental statues, gravel paths and polite conversation took over. The multi-functional place of the square fell out of favor. The poor and working classes were not welcome.

 

In recent years, there have been attempts to revive the old squares.  Farmers' markets have been reintroduced but on the whole in America, squares have park-like features and recreational uses.  There has been a blend.

 

What do you want in a park?  Should it become more square- like?  Do you want to be engaged when you enter a park or do you wish a park to be a retreat, a place to be alone?  Email us with your thoughts: BaldwinParkPhilly@gmail.com

Sources

 

Annie Anderson, Manager of Research and Public Programming at Eastern State Penitentiary Site.  www.easternstate.org

 

Parks in Medieval England, by Stephen Mileson, Oxford University Press, 2009

Reviewed by Aleks Pluskowski, University of Cambridge, 2018

www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/877

 

Poulson's Daily Advertiser, 1823, Philadelphia.

 

Public Ledger, April 24, 1837 and May 19, 1837, Philadelphia.

 

Squares, Parks and Squarks. www.livablecities.org/articles/squares-parks-squarks

 authored by Sandra Owens 7/2018

Matthias Baldwin Park 

423 N 19th St 

Philadelphia, PA 19130

Friends of Matthias Baldwin Park is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that works to preserve the Matthias Baldwin Park

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