PORTLAND, Maine — On April 27, 1858, about 10,000 people turned out in Auburn to witness Maine’s final public executions according to the Eastern Argus newspaper.
After that, all capital punishments were carried out in private, without gawking, community spectators.
On that late summer day in 1858, shipmates Abraham Cox and Peter Williams were hanged together for the hatchet-and-razorblade murders of most of the crew aboard the brig Albion Cooper, while on a voyage from Portland to Cuba.
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Cox and Williams had a chance to get away with their murderous spree, concocting a believeable lie about the fate of the Albion Cooper’s crew. But they left one man alive aboard the boat, a young Irishman named Thomas Fahey, and he eventually squealed on them.
After that, Cox and Williams confessed their crimes freely, often and in great detail but were still to stand trial. To their surprise, however, Fahey died first though, prompting them to recant their multiple confessions.
Their attorneys attempted to have their confessions thrown out but were unsuccessful.
Even without Fahey, their recorded admissions were enough for a federal jury in Portland to convict them and a judge to sentence them to death.
When they swung, Cox and Williams became the 18th and 19th persons executed by a government in Maine.
Cox was born into slavery, around 1790, on the Caribbean Island of St. Martin. Freed by his owners as an adult, he eventually married, had at least two children and settled in Portland. At the time of the murders, Cox was the ship’s cook.
Little is known of Williams, save that he was about 28 years old and a Belgian national when he shipped out as a seaman aboard the Albion Cooper.
Both men had troubles with the first mate, Collingwood Smith, from the start of the voyage, which began July 29, 1857.
Just two days after the ship left Portland with a load of lumber, Smith tripped on a box of dried beans below decks, spilling the food. He then accused Cox of not storing the beans properly.
“After a few more words, he got out a slung shot and hit me over the left eye, so that I could not see with the eye for some time afterward,” Cox said in one of his sworn statements. “I bled freely.”
A few weeks later Cox said Smith punched him in the face, knocked him down several times and threatened to do more.
At the time, physical abuse from first mates aboard Yankee sailing ships was not unusual. At sea, the captain’s word was law and it was part of the first mate’s job to intimidate the crew into accepting that hard fact.
On Aug. 20, First Mate Smith ordered Williams to go aloft and do some work in the rigging. Williams told him the work had already been done.
“He told me to, ‘go up you son of a bitch,'” Williams said in a sworn statement. “I said, ‘I am going to take my supper first.'”
A scuffle ensued.
Smith punched Williams, knocked him down, kicked him several times and threatened to kill him. Williams came up with a knife and stabbed the first mate in the shoulder.
After that, Capt. Daniel Humphrey had Williams locked up in irons.
At trial, Williams claimed Smith then took delight in torturing him, hanging the cuffed man from a large spike driven into a timber below decks for hours at a time, till Williams’ arms ached and he could barely breathe.
At some point, Cox and Williams commiserated, deciding to kill the sadistic first mate, the captain and the rest of the crew. At their trial, both accused the other of bringing it up first.
After a week or so of bondage, Williams pretended to be a changed man. Being short handed, Capt. Humphrey granted him his freedom and put him back to work.
A few days later, on the night of Aug. 29, Williams and Cox went about their terrible deeds.
The Albion Cooper lay at anchor at Stirrup Key in the Bahamas on a becalmed, tropical night. The captain and second mate lay sleeping on the deck. Williams was on night watch at the bow. Cox was in the galley.
The exact order of the murderous events that followed are unclear. Cox and Williams’ stories don’t quite match each other’s — or even their own, multiple retellings.
It seems Williams used a hatchet to dispatch Capt. Humphrey and first mate Smith. Cox, using two razor blades he’d lashed onto sticks, sliced up the second mate.
Both men then took part in hacking up another crew member, sleeping in the forecastle, while Fahey, the young Irish lad, held a lantern for them to see.
Exactly how Fahey got involved, or why he was spared is not known. He may have been in on the crime from the start, he may have sworn to keep quiet in order to save his own life, or Cox and Williams may have spared him because he was still a teenager.
The killings done, the bodies dumped at sea, Cox and Williams went about ransacking the captain’s quarters, looking for valuables. Williams took one of the captain’s pocket watches.
It didn’t take long for the conspirators to realize that a teenager, a cook and a single, illiterate seaman could not handle the Albion Cooper by themselves. They decided to burn it and set off in a lifeboat, hoping to get picked up by a passing vessel.
A few days later, the American ship Black Squall, also headed for Cuba, found them. Cox and Williams said their ship had been destroyed in an accidental fire and they were the only survivors.
The lie might have worked but Fahey soon revealed the truth to the Balck Squall’s captain, who turned them all over to the American consulate in Cuba. While held there, Cox and Williams made two confessions, one under oath and the other not.
Both were later used in court against them.
Williams was also found to have the dead captain’s watch, complete with his name engraved on the back.
On the return voyage to Portland, where they were to stand trial in federal court, the accused murderers confessed again to a sailor aboard that ship, who later testified at their trial.
However, by the time Cox and Williams reached Portland, they’d recanted all their confessions and were pleading innocence.
Fahey, the only witness to their crimes, was dead.
“Thomas Fahey, the boy who gave the information of the murders, and was sent home on the same vessel, to be used in evidence against the prisoners, died from black vomit on Saturday last,” reported the Eastern Argus on Sept. 30, when the ship reached Portland Harbor.
Cox and Fahey were tried in January 1858 and convicted, even without live testimony from Fahey. Their multiple confessions spoke volumes to the jury, which convicted them after about an hour of deliberations. The judge then sentenced them both to death.
After appeals, their federal hangings were scheduled for Aug. 27. It’s unclear why the sentences were carried out in Auburn and not Portland.
The Eastern Argus covered the public event, reporting that thousands of people began gathering the night before the hangings, to get a good vantage point.
The prisoners, dressed all in white, were marched to the scaffold at 11 a.m.
“Williams dropped to his knees and offered a fervent prayer to heaven in his own behalf,” the Argus wrote.
The paper reported the crowd was silent and gloomy as the traps were sprung and the prisoners dropped.
“The physicians, after examination, declared Abraham Cox died by dislocation or fracture of the second vertebra,” the Argus wrote. “And that Peter Willams’ death was caused by strangulation.”
The bodies were loaded onto a train in the afternoon and shipped back to Portland.
The Argus ended its story on an editorial note, reflecting growing distaste for the death penalty in Maine.
“Let us hope that the day is far distant ere the citizens of Maine will again be called on to witness the repetition of today’s tragedy,” it wrote.
In reality, they were never called on again. It was the final public execution held in Maine, to date.
Though Cox and Williams’ were put to death by the federal government, Maine went on to outlaw the death penalty for good within 20 years.
This story is part of an ongoing series examining Maine’s historic use of the death penalty.