A cartload of brooms made by Maine State Prison inmates stands on West Main Street in Thomaston in 1915. In 1863, Warden Richard Tincker was murdered in the wagon-making workshop. Credit: Collections of Thomaston Historical Society, courtesy of MaineMemory.net

Warden Richard Tincker stepped into the wheelwright’s shop at the state prison in Thomaston on May 14, 1863, inspecting the wagon-making enterprise he hoped would make his jail economically self-sufficient.

Two years prior, a private company contracted to run the operation went belly up, leaving the warden holding the financial bag and pleading with the cash-strapped legislature for more funding. In an 1861 report, Tincker revealed the prison was almost $9,000 in debt and asked lawmakers for $10,000 of operating capital on top of that.

By spring 1863, with the Civil War going full tilt, the warden also had his convicts cobbling shoes for the U.S. Army, as well as making wagons, trying to get financially solvent.

So, Tincker may have been distracted that day in the workshop, as an inmate snuck up from behind, stabbed him in the neck with a knife and ended his life at age 68.

The prisoner, Francis Couillard Spencer, was sentenced to death and hanged inside the same prison a year later, becoming the 21st person executed by a government in Maine.

The Saturday, May 16, 1863, edition of Portland’s Eastern Argus newspaper published a detailed account of the murder.

Tincker shouted, “He has killed me,” as Spencer pulled his shank from the warden’s pumping carotid artery, the story read.

The doomed man then staggered out the door, down a short flight of steps into a courtyard. There, he uttered his final words, “I am a dead man,” before expiring in a pool of blood.

After doing the deed, Spencer shouted for all to hear, “I’ll let ’em know there’s one man in the prison that ain’t afraid to die, God damn ’em.”

Spencer then picked up a broadax, to go with his bloody knife, brandishing them both at a workshop overseer, who defended himself with a shovel. But, after a brief standoff, the warden killer gave up without further incident.

Spencer’s self-declaration of bravery after killing Tincker may have been in reference to Maine’s habit of condemning criminals but never carrying out the sentences.

At the time, the death penalty was still on Maine’s books but it was increasingly unpopular. The law required a year’s waiting period after sentencing before an execution could take place — and then only if the governor signed a specific death warrant.

With Maine governors only serving one-year terms back then, every death warrant was a holdover from a previous administration and chief executives were loath to sign.

Thus, Maine hadn’t executed a prisoner in nearly 30 years.

Joseph Sager’s 1834 execution — the final public death spectacle the state would ever see —  was the most recent hanging.

The federal government had carried out three executions on Maine soil over those years.

According to Maine prison records, when Spencer killed Tincker, five out of 111 inmates at the facility had been condemned to death. None would ever be executed.

Except Spencer.

An Eastern Argus newspaper reporter spoke to the prisoner in his cell just hours after the murder.

Spencer told the journalist he was born in Frankfort, lived in Monroe but had spent most of his adult life in prison for various crimes. He also said he was sorry for what he’d just done but the newspaper correspondent didn’t buy it.

“The look, the tone, the manner in which he spoke, did not indicate anything of the kind,” the Argus reporter wrote.

The journalist then inspected Tincker’s body, saying that it looked as if he were sleeping, except for the massive amount of blood soaked into his woolen clothes.

The article ended with the reporter writing that Spencer should have been, “shot on the spot.”

State Attorney General J.H. Drummond gave Spencer a speedy trial. The accused employed an insanity defense but to no avail. Spencer was convicted and sentenced to hang. After the mandated year’s waiting period, Gov. Israel Washburn, who’d recently won re-election, signed the death warrant.

Spencer was hanged on June 25, 1864, behind the prison walls at Thomaston in Maine’s first, non-public state execution. A correspondent from the Bangor Whig and Courier newspaper was there to witness the gruesome event.

According to an article published the next day, Spencer was calm as he stood atop the scaffold with a priest, a doctor and his executioners. He acknowledged the justice of what was about to happen but also maintained he was insane at the time of the crime.

At noon, the trap door beneath Spencer’s feet was sprung.

“His neck was broken instantly,” wrote the Whig and Courier reporter.

Another newspaper story, written decades later and published in the Lewiston Evening Journal in 1885, stated all other prisoners at the penitentiary were then made to file past Spencer’s swinging body before it was cut down.

The same year Spencer was hanged, a new Maine State Prison Warden delivered good news to the Legislature.

Warden W.W. Rice stated the facility was finally operating in the black. What’s more, Rice said he had a surplus balance of $1,495.35.

“The discipline of the prison has never been in a better state than at present,” his report read. “Several of the prisoners for some months past have been earning the state two dollars a day.”

This story is part of an ongoing series examining Maine’s historic use of the death penalty.

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.