The Hangman Who Went to the White House

Grover Cleveland Hangman President

The sheriff of Erie County, New York had a nickname. “Big Steve” earned this monicker because of his size, but it also referred to his character. In an era when graft and corruption abounded throughout county government, “Big Steve” showed that he could rise above it and serve faithfully as an honest man.

Although he only served a single two-year term as sheriff, he found himself in two life-and-death situations that would test any person of integrity.

The first situation involved 28-year-old Patrick Morrissey. Morrissey was convicted of killing his mother with a bread knife. He was sentenced to death by hanging and remanded to the custody of “Big Steve” to carry out the execution.

New York law placed the responsibility of the execution in the hands of the sheriff. The law also allowed the sheriff to appoint a surrogate executioner and pay that individual $10 for pulling the lever on the scaffold. Indeed, that was the practice typically employed by sheriffs. After all, who would want to have to live with the knowledge of being the one personally responsible for ending another human’s life?

Deputy Richard Harris was quick to volunteer, knowing that this burden lay heavy on his boss’s conscience. After careful consideration, “Big Steve” decided the voters of Erie County had entrusted him to be the sheriff and to fulfill all of the duties of the office — especially the unenviable ones. If he couldn’t bear the responsibilities himself, he had no business asking someone else to do it.

On September 6, 1872, “Big Steve” pulled the lever that released the trapdoor under Morrissey. The New York Times account of the event reported that this event made the sheriff “… a sick man for several days thereafter.”

As if that experience weren’t enough, less than six months later, he had to do it again. This time, the man on the gallows was John Gaffney. He was found guilty of fatally shooting a man in the head while playing cards at a saloon. As with Morrissey, Gaffney was sentenced to die by hanging.

Grover Cleveland Sheriff of Erie County
“Big Steve” around the time he served as sheriff of Erie County.

Despite the ill effects of being the executioner at Morrissey’s hanging, “Big Steve” insisted on carrying out the punishment himself. This time, the execution did not go nearly as smoothly. The 5-foot drop broke Gaffney’s neck but didn’t kill him. For 23 minutes, the sheriff was forced to stand, stoically overseeing the slow death of the condemned man.

When his term as sheriff came to an end, “Big Steve” decided he had his full of law enforcement. It was not, however, the end for him in terms of elected office. After returning to his career in law for a brief time, he successfully ran for the office of mayor of Buffalo, New York. Later that year, he became the state’s governor. Two years after that, “Big Steve” was elected to an office big enough for such a big man. Even then, his experience at the gallows could not be forgotten.

That’s why, when Stephen Grover Cleveland (he had stopped using his first name by this point and went exclusively by his middle name) was elected 22nd (and later, 24th) President of the United States, his opponents scornfully referred to him as the “Buffalo Hangman.”

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