By Marlin Keys
Deep within the walls of the modern glass-and-steel building at 100 W. Main, marks the spot of the first-and-only judicial execution ever to take place in Oklahoma City.
The execution of John Milligan
The 1895 hanging of John Milligan was the first use of capital punishment in the nascent Oklahoma Territory, and it took place amid fierce debate.
John Milligan was a murderer – an axe-murderer, to be exact.The crimes he confessed to and were convicted of were so brutal and heinous that even today they would shock the conscience of the public.
Milligan was 19, and had recently moved to the territory from Tennessee. He lived with a foster family that had taken him under their wing. The Clarks – Gabe, Hannah, and their 8-year-old granddaughter Amelda –lived in a small cabin on a farm in the far northeastern corner of Oklahoma County.
Milligan was allowed to live there as well, provided he worked and contributed to the household.
But, according to testimony at his trial, Milligan was lazy and refused to pull his own weight. Gabe Clark gave him an ultimatum: shape up or ship out. Resentful, Milligan conceived a plot.
Having recently sold some mules, the Clarks had saved about $75.
The money was kept hidden in a belt under Mrs. Clark’s dress. Milligan knew of this, and on the night of November 5th, 1893, he lay in his cot waiting for the family to go to sleep.
At about 10pm, Milligan crept into the Clarks’ bedroom armed with an axe and a straight razor.
Knowing that Mrs. Clark was stronger than her elderly husband, he decided to eliminate her first and “split open her face”. Mr.Clark, awoken by the noise, rose and struggled with Milligan until he too was felled by the killer’s axe.
Milligan then turned his attention upon the last member of the Clark family: the little 8-year-old girl, Amelda. He brutally struck her with the axe and used the straight razor to cut her throat.
He then snatched Clark’s watch and the money from Mrs. Clark’s body, and fled.
The next morning, a neighbor discovered the grisly scene.Mrs. Clark was already dead, but Mr. Clark and little Amelda still clung to life. The neighbor sent for the sheriff, and a manhunt began.
Gabe Clark was taken to Oklahoma City for treatment of his wounds but would succumb to them a few days later. But, before he died, he gave a full account of the attack to the sheriff.
Little Amelda would recover and go on to testify later at Milligan’s trial.
Milligan fled on foot and secured a ride to Guthrie by offering a farmer “an unreasonable sum of money”.
At Guthrie, he boarded a northbound train.
Oklahoma County Sheriff John M. Fightmaster suspected that Milligan may have been on his way back to Tennessee and sent a telegraph to authorities in the region, warning them to be on the lookout.
On November 7th, Milligan was captured at a train station in East St. Louis, Illinois. Among the items found on his person were a gold watch engraved with the initials “G.C.” and $35 in cash.
Milligan was brought back to Oklahoma City and charged with two counts of first-degree murder.
Milligan’s trial began on February 9th, 1894. The state’s star witness was little Amelda Clark. Her testimony, along with the half-healed scars on her neck and forehead, made a strong impact upon the jury.
The conviction came on February 11th. Milligan was sentenced to death by hanging, to be carried out on April 6th, 1894.
Milligan’s attorneys were able to obtain a stay of execution pending a review by the territorial Supreme Court, which took up the case in June. The court affirmed his conviction and a new execution date was set for January 11th, 1895.
Surprisingly, capital punishment in Oklahoma Territory was controversial even in 1894. This was largely due to the efforts of an Irishman named Dr. John R. Furlong, a nationally recognized figure known for his efforts on behalf of the sick and impoverished, as well as “strange and wonderful cures”that were attributed to him.
Furlong was a prolific writer on a variety of subjects. He was very interested in the supernatural and “occult forces”. His research on those topics brought him in contact with what was then known as spiritualism, which he claimed had taught him “the power of healing the sick without the use of drugs or medicine.”According to sworn statements from many credible people, he had rid them of incurable diseases almost instantly.
His reputation made him a powerful figure, and when he took up John Milligan’s case, he very nearly brought about the abolition of capital punishment in Oklahoma.
Furlong became interested in Milligan’s case because he believed that “nothing is good but that which takes pain, discord and deformity out of the world”. He bitterly opposed capital punishment in all cases.
The Territory had been filled with murderers and thieves since the first Sooners slipped in illegally. Gangs such as the Daltons and Starrs had made the public weary of crime. The task of changing public opinion and halting the execution of an African-American murderer like John Milligan seemed like an impossible task. But Furlong, undaunted, set out to do just that.
He and his followers began to heavily lobby the Oklahoma Territorial Governor, William C. Renfrow, to intercede and stop the execution. Gov. Renfrow met personally with Dr. Furlong, but after carefully deliberating his plea, decided not to intervene.
The question now arose whether Oklahoma City or Guthrie would host the territory’s first legal hanging.
Another murderer named Robert Phillips was being held in Guthrie and was also awaiting an execution scheduled for November 23, 1894.
A scaffold had been built near the Guthrie jail. However, as Phillips’ date with the hangman neared, he fell ill and collapsed into a coma, causing the court to issue a last-minute stay of execution. Phillips died shortly thereafter.
The scaffold was dismantled, shipped south to Oklahoma City and erected inside a building called “Floral Hall” at the fairgrounds.
Meanwhile, Dr. Furlong had not given up on his fight to save Milligan. On January 9th, 1895 – only two days before Milligan’s scheduled execution – Gov. Renfrow was called away to Washington on a territorial matter. While away, his lieutenant, Thomas J. Lowe, became acting governor. Furlong seized upon this chance to plead his case to Lowe. Remarkably, the doctor’s arguments found a sympathetic ear.
On the eve of Milligan’s execution, Furlong raced south from Guthrie with a 60-day stay of execution in his hands.
Acting Governor Lowe felt that Furlong deserved an opportunity to plead his case for the abolition of capital punishment in Oklahoma to the 3rd Territorial Legislature, which was now in session.
Furlong urged the legislature to pass a bill repealing the death penalty.
Though many in the legislature opposed the bill, most admired his efforts. Furlong worked tirelessly, writing opinion pieces for newspapers and delivering public speeches. On February 22nd, he was given the opportunity to personally address the Senate.
His powerful speech was widely reported and reprinted throughout the territory. Furlong called upon the lawmakers to “abolish this relic of the dark ages” and implored them to make Oklahoma Territory “a beacon for the rest of the nation to follow into the enlightened age.”
The following day, the 13 members of the Senate voted on the bill. By the slimmest of margins, the bill to abolish the death penalty passed by a vote of 7-6. Next, it would have to go to the House of Representatives for final passage.
Dr. Furlong had two weeks before the end of the legislative session to convince the House to take up the Senate’s bill and secure enough votes for its passage.
On the final day of the legislative session, it was reported that Furlong had found enough votes to pass that hurdle.
However, one representative who was not sympathetic to Milligan or Furlong was Rep. Harry St. John.
St. John represented Oklahoma City, and was a staunch supporter of
the death penalty. Using procedural moves, he was able to prevent a vote from happening on March 8th and the session ended without a vote on the bill by the House.
Dr. Furlong had run out of options. Milligan’s execution was now scheduled for noon on March 13th. The Floral Hall at the fairgrounds had been torn down in the intervening months, so the scaffold was re- erected in the yard of the Oklahoma City Jail.
The jail was located on a street that bisected what is now Main and Sheridan, between Broadway and Robinson. A stockade fence was built around the yard to make the spectacle less public. However, hundreds of people crowded around to try to catch a glimpse of the event from the rooftops of nearby buildings or between cracks in the fence.
At 6:30 a.m., Milligan was given his final meal consisting of “The best available breakfast from the Saddle Rock [Cafe] , which he“devoured entirely.” At 10:30, he was allowed to meet one final time with his benefactor, Dr. Furlong.
Furlong told him, “John, as a member of the great human family, you have at this moment my most sincere and heartfelt sympathy, because I know too well that you are nothing more nor less than the natural product of the unfortunate circumstances, environments and conditions by which you have been surrounded both before and since your birth. You are only going today where the rest of us must in a few days follow. The cause of your going may be different but the result will be the same. You are now about to step into the great hereafter, while we are going to live a little longer. Infinite wisdom alone can tell which is the best.”
Milligan had been far from a model prisoner. During his 15 months of incarceration, he had escaped twice. On the eve of his death Milligan confessed to another murder he committed in Tennessee before coming to Oklahoma Territory.
At 11:55 a.m., Milligan was led from his cell to the gallows, preceded by his friends and jailers walking at his side and behind him. Showing no outward signs of fear, Milligan by all accounts went to his fate bravely. When asked if he had any final words he replied, “Not a word.” Just before the black cap was placed over his head, he said goodbye to friends whom he had selected to witness his execution.
At precisely 12:01 p.m, Milligan dropped through the trap door and into history.
His neck was broken instantly, and he dangled motionless for 12 minutes before being cut down, placed in a casket and taken to Fairlawn Cemetery for burial.
Today, his unmarked grave is only a few feet away from the final resting place of one of his victims.
Gabe Clark, after being brought to Oklahoma City unsuccessfully for treatment of his wounds, was not taken back for burial beside his wife. Instead, like Milligan, he was buried in the pauper’s section of Fairlawn Cemetery.
Three days after the execution, a Guthrie newspaper printed the following:“Capital Punishment has now been established in Oklahoma by this act (Milligan’s hanging) and there will probably be few attempts and no success in abolishing it in the future.”
In an ironic postscript, Representative Harry St. John, who tabled the bill to abolish the death penalty, was himself arrested for the murder of his wife only three weeks after Milligan’s execution.
St. John died of influenza before his capital murder trial could begin.