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Iowa’s first execution: The shameful story of Peg-leg O’Conner

When the state of Iowa is mentioned most people think of rolling prairies, but the history of this part of the ‘American Heartland’ also has an Irish hue to it. In the nineteenth century many Irish worked the coal mines scattered throughout the region which acted as fuel stations for the rapidly spreading railroad network. Even before the railroads stretched across the continent there were important lead mines being worked near the frontier town of Dubuque. Linked to the early history of Dubuque was the story of a Cork-born amputee named Patrick O’Conner who worked in the mines and who happens to be recorded as the first execution in the history of the state of Iowa in 1834.[1] Of course at the time Iowa was neither a state nor did it have the judicial authority to sentence a man to death. So, why exactly was a one-legged Cork miner killed in 1834 in Iowa?

O’Conner’s earliest recorded misfortune occurred travelling to Galena, Illinois on a riverboat. He fractured one of his legs in some unexplained accident and the injury was serious enough that the leg had to be amputated. Some locals in Galena sympathized with O’Conner’s predicament and organized a collection to buy him a wooden leg and to pay the doctor’s bills, but their goodwill soured when O’Conner ‘begun to display a brawling and quarrelsome disposition’.[2] If it is difficult to imagine fighting a peg-legged Corkman, we can at least imagine that this disposition might have resulted from his despondence over the loss of his leg and a probable increase in alcohol consumption either for the pain or the anguish. Perhaps the man had always had a ‘quarrelsome disposition’ that rubbed people the wrong way.

Eventually the townspeople of Galena drove him out of the town after two incidences involving a local merchant named John Brophy. Apparently O’Conner had shot at Brophy through a window and then Brophy said he saw O’Conner intentionally set fire to his own cabin, causing serious damage to the surrounding buildings.[3] It seems O’Conner had some sort of financial difficulties with the store owner, but we have such limited information on the episode the exact details of what happened are somewhat obscured. In 1833 O’Conner fled to the lead mines of Dubuque and entered a partnership with another Irishman, George O’Keaf [sic]. The pair shared a small wooden hut without incident for a year and then on 19 May 1834, in what seems to have been an unfortunate accident, O’Conner shot O’Keaf when he tried to force his way into their locked cabin returning from work.

Another miner who accompanied O’Keaf back to his cabin offers us the only account of what happened and tells us that O’Keaf asked to be let in and O’Conner replied ‘Don’t be in a hurry I’ll open it when I get ready’.[4] A few minutes passed and as it had started to rain O’Keaf tried to enter by breaking the lock on the door and O’Conner shot him. The fatal shooting appears to have been a tragic misunderstanding. O’Conner appears to have mistakenly believed that it was someone from Galena, possibly Brophy, trying to kill him. O’Keaf was a young and popular 22-year-old miner and O’Conner proved spectacularly unrepentant and stubborn. When people arrived on the scene and asked why he had shot him he replied with a glib ‘That is my business’.[5] His stubbornness continued at the impromptu ‘trial’ in Dubuque and when asked to select his counsel said, ‘Faith, and I’ll tind [sic] to my own business’. Later when asked if innocent or guilty he said, ‘I’ll not deny that I shot him, but ye have no laws in the country, and cannot try me’.[6] Legally speaking O’Conner was entirely correct; federal law did not yet extend into the newly acquired territory and the Governor of Missouri rejected any responsibility for the trial saying it should take place in a court that had legal standing in the neighboring state of Illinois. However, in previous cases men sent to trial in Illinois were released because the crime had taken place outside the state’s jurisdiction. This contributed to the decision to unofficially try O’Conner in Iowa where the jury found him guilty.[7]  In this way it seems that O’Conner was sentenced to hang because he served to purpose of advertising to the wider community that Dubuque was a town that would not let the law get in the way of some harsh summary ‘justice’.

The arrival of a priest, Rev. Fitzmaurice, from Galena further ratcheted up the tense atmosphere in the town. He strongly denounced the trial as ‘illegal and unjust [sic]’ after which the sizable Irish Catholic presence in Dubuque ‘became cool on the subject and… intended to take no further part in the matter’.[8] Strangely, even though the account in the Annals of Iowa states that the jury had set the execution for 20 June 1834, commenting on the crowd, it states:

Up to this we did not believe that O’Conner would be executed. It was in the power of the Rev. Mr. Fitzmaurice to save him, and he was anxious to do so. Had he appealed to the people in a courteous manner, and solicited his pardon upon the condition that he would leave the country, we confidently believe that they would have granted it; but he imprudently sought to alienate the feelings of the Irish people from the support of an act of public justice, which they, in common with the people of the mines, had been endeavoring to consummate. This had the effect of closing the avenues to any pardon that the people might have previously been willing to grant (emphasis added).[9]

It is obvious here that the writer of this historical account realized the contradiction in telling the tale of Iowa’s first execution. The sentence was neither legal nor deserved. Why exactly would anyone believe that O’Conner might not be executed after receiving that sentence and, more importantly, why would the tone of the priest’s appeals matter one way or the other? The writer tries to shift the blame from the people involved in the trail to the priest. A direct appeal to the President of the United States, Andrew Jackson, to clarify whether the townspeople of Dubuque had the right to sentence this man to die returned a response validating O’Conner’s position and stating that the laws of the United States did not yet apply to the new territories. Even this statement did not shift the determination of Dubuque’s leaders to kill O’Conner and the President in his reply perhaps sensed their bloodlust as he ended his letter with the statement that ‘he thought the pardoning power was invested in the power that condemned’, indicating his hope that the people of Dubuque would show mercy.[10]

This was not to be the case though and whether or not poor O’Conner’s Irishness had played a part in his death sentence, it was about to play a part in shortening his life quite dramatically when:

A few days before the execution, a rumor got afloat that a body of two hundred Irishmen were on their way from Mineral Point, intending to rescue O’Conner on the day of execution. Although this report proved not to be founded in truth, it had the effect of placing the fate of O’Conner beyond the pardoning control of any power but force.[11]

An armed mob of townspeople, moved by their enthusiasm for the execution and fearful that their prize might be snatched from their grasp, decided to lynch O’Conner rather than keep him in jail or give him an official trial in another state. As O’Conner was driven in a cart to the gallows the priest consoled him, offering him confession and last rites while the crowd shouted obscenities at the pair. A fife played the ‘Dead March’ and over one thousand spectators watched the hanging, after which a public collection was taken to pay for costs of execution, the coffin, and the burial.[12] Sympathetic contemporary newspapers and historical accounts detail the event and other vigilante lynchings throughout the American West with a thin veil of legality and solemnity in their efforts to legitimise their actions. In reality these executions served dual purposes as both perverse forms of entertainment for some and as a form of intimidation for others.[13]

After the account of the execution of O’Conner in the Annals of Iowa the writer sought to assuage any concerns by ending with the following lines: ‘Immediately after this, many of the reckless and abandoned outlaws, who had congregated at the Dubuque Mines, began to leave for sunnier climes. The gleam of the Bowie knife was no longer seen in the nightly brawls of the street, nor dripped upon the sidewalk the gore of man; but the people began to feel more secure in the enjoyment of life and property.’[14] Strange justification for executing a man because of, what was by all accounts, an accidental shooting. Perhaps the real goal of the execution was to send a strong message to the Irish community, as well as the wider public, that some influential townspeople had the power to execute anyone who committed a crime in their town. It was a lesson that would be repeated against a wide range of ethnic groups throughout the nineteenth century across the vast expanses of the United States.


[1] Eliphalet Price, ‘Trial and Execution of Patrick O’Conner’, Annals of Iowa, (State Historical Society, Iowa City, 1865), Vol. III-V, pp. 566-74.

[2] Ibid. p. 567.

[3] In another of the firsts for Iowa, an Irishman named Nicholas Carroll was apparently the first person to unfurl the Star Spangled Banner in the region in 1834. Ibid. p. 528.

[4] Ibid. p. 568.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. p. 569. The Jury was composed of six Americans, three Irishmen, one English, one French and one Scottish man.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. p. 570. This aspect of O’Conner’s execution tends to be ignored in accounts, for example when the Iowa Recorder detailed the historic event in the run up to the tenth execution in Iowa. See Iowa Recorder, 7 March 1923.

[9] Price, ‘Trial and Execution of Patrick O’Conner’, p. 570.

[10] Ibid. p. 571.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. pp. 572-3.

[13] Regarding a similar incident, Frank Fargo wrote in the Daily Alta California of the Vigilance Committee hanging of James P. Casey in 1856, ‘the whole living throng moved forward with scarcely an audible voice, save that of the officers in command. A solemnity and stillness pervaded the whole party that at once was significant of the might and power in those brave hands’. Frank Fargo, A True and Minute History of the Assassination of James King of William, and the Execution of Casey and Cora (Whitton, San Francisco, 1858); David Goodman, Gold Seeking: Victoria and California in the 1850s (Stanford University Press, Stanford), p. 95-6.

[14] Price, ‘Trial and Execution of Patrick O’Conner’. pp. 573-4.

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Kafkaesque Nightmares

Review of Jo Langer, Convictions: My Life With A Good Communist (2nd ed. London: Granta, 2011)

convictions

In the early 1950s, the Czechoslovak revolution, like the Russian before it, began devouring its own children. Former high officials of the Communist Party were arrested, tortured, and forced to sign false confessions detailing their activities as imperialist/ Trotskyist/ Titoist/Zionist spies. Those who had spent time in the west before or during the Second World War were most vulnerable, likely to have been traitors, corrupted into serving capitalism. Jews, ironically and sickeningly, were as a group also particularly vulnerable, as in a new twist on the racist stereotype of the ‘wandering Jew’, were deemed ‘cosmopolitan’, open again to the lure and corruption of the west and in particular, that of Israel. Ironic and sickening in that communism was supposedly an ideology that knew no boundary of ethnicity or religion, and in that the accused communist Jews were often the first who for years had been ‘wandering’ in the west due to being forced into exile for their communist and anti-fascist activities, many volunteering in the fight against Franco in Spain, and continuing their struggle in the underground resistance throughout Europe during the Second World War. Communist states, supposedly solidly built on anti-fascist foundations, now saw those with the clearest anti-fascist credentials as suspect. Even those at the very top of the pyramid were prone to a crushing fall, and the terror culminated in the infamous trial of former secretary-general of the party Rudolf Slánský and thirteen other defendants from 1951-3. Of these, eleven were Jewish, and in total, twelve were hanged. The story of the trial has been told well in the account of one of the defendants, Artur London in his 1968 book L’Aveu, published in English variously as The Confession and On Trial, and made into a film by the former name in 1970 by Costa-Gavras. A powerful accompaniment to London’s account is that of Jo Langer, wife of an imprisoned victim of the trial, Oscar Langer.

In her memoir Convictions: My Life With A Good Communist (1979), we get a viewpoint so often missing from history – that of those who are left behind; the families of the victims, left to fend for themselves against the cancer of lies, intimidation and surveillance that spread throughout society. Jo and her husband, both communists and Jews, had lived in the United States during the war. Many of their family members had perished in Nazi concentration camps. Despite the safety and relative prosperity of life in the US, Oscar immediately accepted an invitation back to Czechoslovakia after the war to play a role in the reconstruction of his country. Jo, Hungarian by birth, unhappy in her marriage and relatively content with life in the US, was wont to leave but nevertheless overcame her reluctance and accompanied her husband to Bratislava. Their immediate deprivation was seen as temporary, and a necessary discomfort to be endured while Czechoslovakia, with help from the Soviet Union, rebuilt the country along socialist lines. Oscar, a leading member of the party in Slovakia, went further however. Throughout her memoir, Jo gives us snippets of the guilt she was made to feel for anything considered even a small luxury while others in the world went without basic necessities – the ever-present ‘Chinese coolie’ in their relationship as she terms it.

And yet Oscar, despite his devotion to the party, was arrested and placed on trail, accused of assisting Slánský. Avoiding eventual execution, he was nevertheless imprisoned, tortured, kept in solitary confinement and forced to give a confession as to the nature of his relationship with Slánský, whom he had never even met. Twice he attempted suicide, and both times failed. Jo was kicked out of her home and with her two daughters, banished to a remote village in rural Slovakia, her apartment given over to accommodate party officials. Deprived of work and the right to live in Bratislava, she and her daughters eked out an existence of poverty and fear. Eventually allowed back to Bratislava, she recounts how all her old friends kept away from her and how all doors remained closed to her and her family because of her husband. Scraping by in a dilapidated basement working mostly translating official documents into Hungarian, she suffered constantly. Not allowed to see her husband for three years, she nevertheless fought on, battling the bureaucracy and at times, paying grovelling visits to officials she despised and lived in fear of, in the hope of seeing the release of her husband, once estranged, but now united with her against the terror. And yet she fought alone. Oscar, despite all that existed before his eyes, refused to believe the party and his comrades could be responsible, believing instead that the security apparatus was acting above the party.

In 1960, Oscar was amnestied and released. His return was bittersweet however. His wife felt him more domineering than ever, never commending her for what she had done to survive, eager to forgive party officials and hold meetings in their house for the reform of the party while Jo worked to provide for their family both outside and within the home. His relationship with his children Susie and Tania was no less strained. In short, he failed to see what lay before his eyes, preferring to believe instead in an imaginary world where the party could do no wrong and where his wife and children were at fault for being too decadent and not struggling enough to build socialism in their country. Weakened by his ordeal, he died two years later.

Jo and her daughters would eventually escape as the tanks rolled in to crush the Prague Spring in 1968. The hopes for ‘socialism with a human face’ convinced others, but never her, having seen the result of 1956 in her native Hungary, and the opportunism of those who had committed her husband to prison embrace socialist reform in 1968, biding their time for the return to totalitarian rule. Her account, though cynical at times, is an important and ultimately heartrending one. Her struggle – as a worker, Hungarian, communist, Jew, immigrant, and woman – is inspiring and shocking. She presents a courageous testimony to the Kafkaesque ordeal of Central and Eastern Europeans in the twentieth century, and the complexity of individual lives witness to and struggling to wake from this nightmare.

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Filed under Communism, Czechoslovakia, Reviews, Twentieth Century