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Taylor's Death Was Quick . . . But Some Weren't So Lucky
Executioner's Song--a Utah Reprise
Hal Schindler
Published: 01/28/1996 Category: Nation-World Page: A1

Editor's Note: Tribune reporter Harold Schindler has witnessed five of Utah's 49 executions, including John Albert Taylor's death by firing squad Friday.

If ever John Albert Taylor felt consuming terror, it would have been in the agonizing 45 seconds before a Utah State Prison firing squad snuffed out his life early Friday morning.

That was the elapsed time from the moment Warden Hank Galetka pulled a hood over the convicted child-killer's head and stepped from the execution chamber to the instant that four .30-caliber slugs slammed into Taylor's chest.

As quickly as the breath exploded from his lungs, it was over. Taylor was dead before the doctor could make the official pronouncement--before witnesses could bring themselves to breathe again.

Not all of Utah's 49 executions have been so methodical, or so fatally efficient. In fact, firing squads have bungled two executions--one in 1879, the other in 1951.

And while the condemned have been given options of hanging and--in recent years--lethal injection, 40 have died from gunfire. There have been bizarre twists and controversies through the years, including one claim of beheading. Among the quirks:
-Several condemned men donated their bodies to science, and one 18-year-old sold his for a bag of candy.

-An inmate allowed an electrocardiograph to monitor his heartbeat during his death by firing squad. He was the first to will his eyes to a specialist in California; his body went to the University of Utah.

-A prisoner cheated the firing squad by taking a drug overdose the night before he was to be shot.

When Taylor ordered pizzas "with everything" for his last meal, it struck a chord for some veteran law officers: "Who else ordered pizza?" Barton Kay Kirkham.

In June 1958, he became the last prisoner hanged in Utah. Kirkham spent his last hours playing the piano, chatting with reporters and sheriff's deputies and eating    "pizza and ice cream" in the prison auditorium.

The melody Kirkham noodled on the keyboard was simple, but he could not manage it. "I'll just have to practice more," said the young man executed for the murders of David Avon Frame and Ruth Webster, who were killed during a grocery-store holdup in Salt Lake City in 1956.

Offered the option of the gallows or firing squad, Kirkham asked, "What costs most?" He chose the noose because of the publicity it would generate and because he wanted to make his death difficult for the state.

"I heard the shooters get to keep the guns, and they're not getting anything free from me," Kirkham said.

Taylor also wanted to rub Utah's nose in it. He chose the firing squad because it would be awkward for state officials. Taylor shunned lethal injection, saying he did not want to flop around on the gurney "like a dying fish." Friday's execution, in a mechanical sense, was a model of lethal decorum.

The death chair, painted a deep midnight blue to neutralize the color of blood into an indistinguishable glistening hue, was made of steel and mesh. Velcro strips secured the condemned's ankles, wrists, arms and body.

It was a far cry from the piece of ordinary office furniture used when the notorious Gary Mark Gilmore faced a firing squad in 1977.

All the straps and harnesses used on Taylor were to keep him from moving around. They were unnecessary, for Taylor proved entirely cooperative.

But on May 16, 1879, a lack of restraining straps resulted in the most bizarre, grotesque and horribly botched Utah execution on record. It was so disgraceful that one newspaper, the Ogden Junction, sarcastically reminded the state that "the French guillotine never fails."

It all came about when Wallace Wilkerson, who killed a man in an argument about a card game in Provo, was to face the firing squad in a corner of the jail yard. As the hour neared, Wilkerson strode from his cell dressed in black broadcloth and wearing a white felt hat. In his left hand he carried a cigar, which remained with him to the last.

Witnesses noticed "he exhibited unmistakable effects of liquor." The condemned man insisted on not being tied to the chair and he refused a blindfold. "I give you my word," he said, "I intend to die like a man, looking my executioners right in the eye."

The sheriff protested, explaining that the sharpshooters would be concealed in a shed 20 feet distant. Wilkerson pleaded, and the sheriff relented. He placed a white, 3-inch patch over the condemned man's heart, stepped back and signaled the shooters.

Wilkerson heard the muted command, "Ready, aim . . . " and drew up his shoulders as if to brace himself for the fatal moment. The guns fired; four heavy slugs tore into the condemned man. With the impact, Wilkerson leaped out of the chair and jumped forward "five or six feet." He crashed to the dirt and turned his head downward to his chest.

"Oh, my God! My God! They have missed," he screamed.

A doctor and several witnesses rushed forward. As Wilkerson writhed on the ground in full view of some 20 spectators, it became apparent the bullets had not struck his heart.

By straightening in his chair, he had raised the target and the shooters were misdirected. Three slugs touched the target, but were well above the vital spot; the fourth bullet struck six inches from the others and shattered Wilkerson's left arm.

It was 27 minutes before he could be pronounced dead.

In September 1951, Eliseo J. Mares became the second condemned man to suffer the consequences of a botched execution.

Mares was the first prisoner to be put to death in the new prison at the Point of the Mountain. The old penitentiary in Sugar House had been the execution site since 1900; before then the sentences were carried out in counties where the crime took place.

When Mares was shot, newspaper stories carried the barest of details. Not until 25 years later, in a reminiscence by one of the witnesses, Salt Lake Tribune reporter Clark Lobb, was it disclosed that Mares "died silently and horribly." Two of the four bullets fired from 15 feet away struck Mares in the hip and abdomen. It was several minutes before the prisoner was declared dead.

Much has been made of firing squads being a throwback to early Utah, when Brigham Young was governor and speaking forcibly about murderers--that their souls could be saved only by having their own blood shed.

And it is a fact that a territorial law approved in March 1852 provided that the condemned should suffer death by being shot, hanged or beheaded. There is no official case of beheading on record, but an emigrant of 1850 claimed that another emigrant was "taken into the bush" and beheaded by a sheriff's posse.

As for firing squads, Idaho, Nevada and Oklahoma used them for a while.

Until 1911, Nevada depended on the gallows to mete out the death penalty, but its Legislature broke with the past and amended the penal code to include firing squads. First to make use of the option was Andriza Mircovich in May 1913. The state responded by ordering a "shooting machine" from an Eastern foundry.

It consisted of three rifles mounted on a steel frame. Phillip I. Earl of the Nevada Historical Society described the weapons as "pre-aimed, loaded [with two live rounds and a blank] and equipped with Maxim silencers. They were to be fired by a coiled spring mechanism set off by simultaneously cutting three strings, only one of which would fire the two loaded rifles.

The machine, facetiously dubbed the "shooting gallery," was used to execute Mircovich, but it never was used again. The contraption went into storage until World War I, when it was donated to a scrap-metal drive.

Nevada adopted lethal gas in 1921, but a bill introduced in 1922 called for the return of the firing squads, citing gas as too barbaric. The measure failed. Lethal gas last was used in 1979, and abolished in 1980 in favor of lethal injection.

Utah at times has been innovative in meting out justice. In the spring of 1850 occurred what may be considered the first "formal"--if not official--execution in Utah history. The account of Patsowits, a Ute Indian, was located in the Bancroft Library papers of historian Dale L. Morgan by former University of Utah history Professor Brigham D. Madsen.

The diaries and journals say Patsowits shot an emigrant in Sanpete Valley and was  "taken into custody" by settlers. Chaplain John Kay and Sheriff James Ferguson administered last religious rites to the Ute before he died. Lt. John W. Gunnison, serving in the Stansbury survey expedition at the time, noted Patsowits was "caught and killed by the bowstring," implying that the Ute was garroted, or strangled.

In 1858, Thomas H. Ferguson stood on the gallows in Great Salt Lake City and devoted his last words to a criticism of the territorial court, which first had sentenced him to die on a Sunday (which was remedied), but then had deprived him of his right to choice.

"I was tried by the statutes of Utah Territory, which give a man the privilege of being shot, beheaded or hung. But was it given to me? No, it was not!" Having spoken his piece in a half-hour soliloquy, Ferguson was launched into eternity.

Chauncy W. Millard, an 18-year-old New York street urchin who turned killer, was executed in January 1869 in the Provo City Jail yard. Before he died, he sold his soon-to-be-corpse to a Provo surgeon for a pound of candy. Some 400 people witnessed his death.

Enoch Davis, condemned for killing his wife, asked if there were any "prostitutes available" on the morning of his 1894 execution. His request was denied and he faced a squad of six riflemen. None shot blanks.

The Tribune reported that Davis "died like a dog . . . the most despicable, mangy canine whelp that ever met an ignominious fate could not have whined itself out of existence in a more deplorable, decency-sickening state than was Enoch Davis' last hour." Frank Romeo, executed Feb. 20, 1913, collapsed and had to be "all but dragged" to the firing squad.

John Deering in October 1938 refused appeals and demanded the firing squad. He allowed a cardiograph to record his heartbeat. His heart stopped 15.6 seconds after the bullets struck. His heart rate went from 72 beats to 180 at the moment he was strapped in the chair. He willed his eyes to a California specialist and his body to the U. of U.

Career criminal Mack Merrill Rivenburg faced a firing squad for killing another inmate at the Utah State Prison in 1958. Rivenburg and two other inmates used a knife to nearly sever the head of their victim.

Utah was revolted by the crime, but Rivenburg cheated the executioner. On Sept. 13, 1962, hours before he was to be executed for the murder of LeRoy Joesph Verner, Rivenburg committed suicide by taking a smuggled drug overdose.

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