Joshua Chamberlain is known best for his heroics at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. He's more seldom remembered for presiding over the execution of a Black Civil War veteran as Maine's governor. Credit: Collections of Pejepscot History Center, courtesy of MaineMemory.net

An epic Hollywood movie, the beloved novel it was based upon, reams of historical writing and more than one towering statue have all helped enshrine Joshua Chamberlain as a mythic hero in most Mainers’ minds.

More than a century after his death, Chamberlain is now chiefly remembered as the lionhearted college professor who led a desperate bayonet charge down the slopes at Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg, saving the day, and perhaps the whole Union Army, in 1863.

That’s reasonably accurate. But there’s more to Chamberlain than Gettysburg.

In addition to his genuine heroics, Chamberlain was also a rigid, stubborn thinker. His tenacious, single-minded ways may have equaled bravery during the Civil War, but they did not serve him well when the conflict was over.

Instead, his inflexibility alienated his Republican party allies and led to his enthusiastic support for the state’s execution of Clifton Harris, a diminutive, formerly enslaved, Black man convicted of two murders on scant evidence.

Harris’ 1869 death warrant was the only one Chamberlain signed during his four one-year terms as Maine governor. He did it over the objections of his own attorney general and the leader of the Maine House of Representatives.

At the same time, the Hero of Gettysburg pardoned or commuted sentences for dozens of other, white criminals — including murderers.

In addition, Harris’ execution was a botched, ghastly affair.

With public support for the death penalty already waning in Maine, and with few political friends, the ugly incident effectively put an end to Chamberlain’s political ambitions.

But the story begins with two heinous murders.

Susannah Kinsley, 64, and Polly Caswell, 67, lived by themselves in Auburn.

On January 17, 1867, during a raging blizzard, someone entered their house and beat them both unconscious with a chair. The assailant then raped Kinsley and cut her throat with a knife.

Both women were then disfigured and finished off with a hatchet.

A few days later, a neighbor noticed no smoke coming from the women’s chimney and stopped in to check on them, finding only their frozen corpses.

Local police first arrested two different suspects who both turned out to have alibis. Baffled authorities then called in a private investigator from New York City to help them solve the case.

The out-of-town detective soon settled on Harris. It’s unclear exactly why, except that the 19-year-old suspect had dried blood on his boots. That shouldn’t have been a surprise, as Harris was employed butchering cattle on an Auburn farm.

Harris stood five-foot-two and had come to Maine some months before. Though he often changed his backstory, he was likely from the Deep South and formerly enslaved.

Official federal records show he served in the 6th Regiment of the United States Colored Heavy Artillery Unit, which operated in Mississippi and Louisiana during the Civil War.

Harris was also likely mentally disabled, seeming to take the lead of those questioning him, telling them what they wanted to hear.

An Eastern Argus newspaper reporter who interviewed Harris noted he was illiterate and, “the remarks of Clifton Harris were disconnected and not very intelligible.”

Still, under withering interviews with the private investigator, the Auburn police and the Androscoggin County sheriff — and with no defense attorney present — Harris confessed to the entire crime.

“The case was as good as closed,” wrote Jason Finkelstein in a 2010 article in Maine History magazine about the murders, “for in nineteenth-century law, the confession was the evil twin of the alibi: if the alibi was an automatic exoneration, the confession was an assured condemnation.”

Harris also pointed a finger at a white acquaintance, Luther Verrill, saying the murders were the second man’s idea.

Verrill maintained his innocence, and they were put on trial together.

Maine Attorney General William Frye claimed in his prosecution that Harris, like all Black men, was a natural sexual predator, unable to controll his physical appetites.

The jury bought the racist stereotype, and both men were convicted on nothing but Harris’ confession.

Verrill was later retried and acquitted after Harris retracted his claim that the second man was with him the night of the murder. Harris would later change his story again, but by then, nobody was listening.

Since the adoption of an 1837 law, prisoners condemned to die in Maine had a mandatory year’s grace period to live. After that time was up, the governor had to sign a death warrant affixed with an execution date.

It almost never happened.

Since 1834, only one man had actually been hanged. He killed the warden inside the state prison. The state was so politically and morally divided over the death penalty, governors usually ignored the end of the grace period, leaving the condemned to defacto life sentences within the prison at Thomaston.

By the time Chamberlain took office in 1867, there were 12 men awaiting execution. Among them, Thomas Thorn, had been on death row for 24 years — since 1843.

Chamberlain said this way of doing things was “passive and weak” and urged the Legislature to change the law.

It did not.

Thus, Chamberlain set about discharging what he said was the governor’s duty. He began commuting death sentences to life and went on a pardoning spree.

“Twenty-one have been discharged by pardon during the year, nineteen by the Governor and two by the President,” wrote the Maine State Prison Warden in his 1869 report to the Legislature.

The warden then pointed out that in Massachusetts, where the prison population was four times that of Maine, only 14 criminals had been pardoned in the same time frame.

It’s clear, from his actions, Chamberlain hated unfinished business and loose ends. When Harris’ grace period came to an end, he didn’t hesitate signing the death warrant. At the same time, he commuted two other white murderer’s death sentences to life, giving no explanation for the discrepancy.

Thomas Brackett Reed, then a young state legislator in Chamberlain’s own party, was horrified. Reed attempted to pass emergency legislation abolishing the death penalty.

The hasty measure failed. Later in life, as the most powerful speaker of the House in U.S. history, Reed would always have his votes counted in advance.

Likewise, Attorney General Frye — the man who had convicted Harris — spoke out against executing him.

In an official state report, Frye urged Chamberlain to show leniency because Harris was, “born on a southern plantation, educated only as to his brutal instincts, compelled into ignorance and degradation and subserviency to a white man.”

Though Frye’s argument was, at its root, as racist as his prosecution, the future president of the U.S. Senate was not alone in trying to appeal to Chamberlain’s better angels.

The Eastern Argus editorialized against Chamberlain asking, “Conscience makes men cowards, but does it make them consistent?”

Likewise, the Maine Farmer newspaper urged Chamberlain to change his mind, pointing out, “For more than thirty years this barbarous punishment has slumbered upon our statute book.”

Finally, the Kennebec Reporter noted that, “choking a man to death according to the law,” was less than civilized.

But Chamberlain was unmoved, determined to see Harris hang.

“Most people who say they favor the death penalty would not be able to carry out an execution or even to watch one,” wrote John J. Pullen, one of Chamberlain’s biographers. “But in the war, Chamberlain had seen too many good men die to be overly horrified at the extinction of a bad one.”

Thus, when he gave his inaugural address at the start of 1869, the old soldier spoke loud and clear, for all to hear.

“It is urged that we be merciful but to whom?” Chamberlain said. “To the violator of all sanctities, the pitiless despoiler of all the peace and good order of society — or to the innocent, the good, the peaceful and well-doing, who rely upon the protection of the state?”

Harris was hanged on March 12 inside the state prison that same year. A public crowd clamored to get in and watch the essentially private spectacle. When the warden turned them away, they climbed to nearby rooftops for a far-away glimpse.

Inside, a photographer made pictures of the proceedings, copies of which were later sold as souvenirs. Newspaper reporters from around the state, as well as from New York and Boston, also witnessed the execution.

“There was a bang from the falling trap and the body of the man shot straight downward about eight feet,” wrote an Eastern Argus reporter. “It hung motionless for the space of ten seconds and all supposed the neck was broken and the man dead. But the silence was only from shock. The hands commenced to twitch convulsively.”

“The death struggle was terrible,” wrote a New York Times correspondent. “To some it seemed as if the wretched man was conscious after he fell, that he drew up his body and and his chest heaved convulsively.”

Harris struggled to free his hands and breathe for several more minutes, gyrating around and around, before he finally died.

After 25 minutes, his body was cut down and sent to a medical school in Brunswick for dissection.

Seven years later, Maine lawmakers abolished the death penalty, then briefly reinstated it a few years later.

Chamberlain served one last term as governor but then gave up on politics. He’d made too many enemies in his own party, including the powerful Frye and Reed.

Instead, he became an unpopular president of Bowdoin College where he repeatedly tangled with students, insisting on making them march military militia drills on the quad.

Chamberlain was so intractable, he even refused to die from his old wounds which kept him catheterized and in constant, infected pain for nearly 50 years. He finally succumbed to them in Portland on Feb. 24, 1914, at the age of 85.

He’s buried near Bowdoin College.

Nobody knows what became of Harris’ remains once the medical school was through with them.

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

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Troy R. Bennett

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