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Murder most foul: The execution of Charles Russell

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Charles Russell sentenced to death for the murder of James Crotty and was executed July 25, 1873. (Courtesy photo)
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The Charles Russell murder case of 1872 split The City over the death penalty, pitted minister against minister and sold a lot of newspapers.

At first glance, it seems like an odd dispute. Neither Russell nor his victim, James “Short-haired Jimmy” Crotty, could be considered peace-loving citizens. A convicted burglar and San Quentin alumnus, Russell had been recently arrested for drawing a deadly weapon. Crotty, a political thug, had been recently jailed for assault.

But fate brought them together on Aug. 2 of that year — with fatal results. 

Russell and Crotty were drinking together in Cady’s saloon when Russell started reminiscing about the bad ol’ days. Russell accused Crotty of being a robber; Crotty reminded Russell of his time in prison. Both men started fighting and threatened each other, but the two were quickly separated. Russell left the bar, had dinner and ran into a friend. The men returned to Cady’s a few hours later. Russell saw Crotty standing at the bar, facing the bartender. Russell walked up to the bar, pulled out a gun and shot Crotty in the head, mortally wounding him. Russell was arrested the next day and charged with murder. 

At his trial in January 1873, Russell claimed he thought that Crotty was reaching for a gun and shot him in self-defense. But the bartender and others testified that Crotty never saw Russell until he was shot. The jury took only an hour to find Russell guilty of first-degree murder. But by the time of his sentencing just a few weeks later, the tone of the press coverage had changed.

“He was neatly dressed, but looked haggard and dejected. He wore a light overcoat, dark pants and coat and his whole appearance was quite tasty,” pronounced the San Francisco Chronicle.

As Judge John W. Dwinelle pronounced the death sentence, he described Russell as “a young man in the prime of life, with a countenance beaming with intelligence who might have been an ornament to society.”

Russell’s gentlemanly appearance and his forlorn situation — alone, friendless and facing imminent death — brought him much sympathy. His service in the Civil War, where he fought in many battles and was promoted to the rank of sergeant, also helped change public opinion.

Then, new allegations arose.

Before the murder, Russell had been working for and living at the house of James Page, a restaurant owner who had helped Russell after his release from prison. In February 1873, Page discovered that Russell had been having an affair with his wife. Page gave the newspapers an intimate letter that Charles had written to his wife from his jail cell:

“In the depths of woe and darkness
To my lost idol, my pet. What might have been, I know is not.
What must be, must be borne. But ah! what has been, will not be
Forget? Never! Henceforth, I am alone, alone!  I have seen my first
and holiest love depart, and the hand of death is creeping on my heart …

Though you should look back upon your love for me as foolish, still I will be with you, and my love will ever be the same for eternity.”

Two weeks later, in a fit of jealousy, Page shot his wife and killed himself. Mrs. Page survived and continued to visit Russell in his jail cell.

Despite this news, Russell’s support continued to grow. In June of that year, Russell became a born-again Christian. Delighted by the redemption of a notorious sinner, ministers flocked to Russell’s side.

One minister in particular, Rev. Dr. Carpenter, became obsessed with the case and believed all of Russell’s claims of innocence.

Carpenter, along with two women missionaries, stayed with Russell almost constantly during the last two weeks of Russell’s life. On his execution day, Carpenter went so far as to mount the scaffold, stand on the trap and put his head in the noose.

Russell’s execution, on July 25, 1873, was a social event. Hundreds of visitors, invited by the sheriff, crowded around the gallows.

After the hanging, Dr. Carpenter angrily called it, “Murder most foul!” and spoke accusingly to newspaper reporters who he said had lied
about Russell. Carpenter’s behavior ignited a storm of angry criticism from fellow ministers and others who had a much less forgiving view of murder — more of an Old Testament view of justice.

As a result, Dr. Carpenter’s views on capital punishment became increasingly vague, and Charles Russell faded from public memory.

Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco. For more information, visit www.crookstour.com.

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