An inmate's hands protrude between the bars of a cell inside the old Maine State Prison in Thomaston in a 2001 file photo. Convicted murderers Raphael Capone and Carmine Santore were hanged in the prison yard there in 1885. Credit: Anthony Robert La Penna / BDN

If Raphael Capone and Carmine Santore had shot and bludgeoned Paschual Coscia to death in a patch of Brewer woods just six months earlier, they would never have been hanged for the crime.

But their timing was off.

Instead of life sentences, the two Italian immigrant railroad workers met their fate atop a scaffold at the Maine State Prison for the bloody September 1883 murder and robbery.

Capone and Santore were the first two men hanged under Maine’s restored death penalty, signed into law in March that same year. After a seven-year hiatus, the state was back in the execution business.

The new capital punishment law stayed on the books for just four years, but that was plenty of time for Maine to hang Capone and Santore, then gift their bodies to the Bowdoin College medical school for dissection.

“A foul murder,” blared a Monday morning Kennebec Journal newspaper headline on Sept. 10, 1883. “The victim an Italian workman — three times shot and the head beaten to a jelly.”

Coscia’s body had been found two days earlier, on Saturday, in an area known as Burr Woods in Brewer. It was not far from an encampment of railroad laborers, many of whom, like the deceased, were migrant workers from Italy.

According to various newspaper accounts, overnight railroad workers distributing ties along the new train route on Friday night heard gunshots, shouting, screams and a scuffle coming from the woods. But, being scared, they did not investigate until the morning.

That’s when they found Coscia, shot twice, his face pummeled with a blood-stained fencepost.

“The murderer or murderers seemed to have been determined to make sure their victim was dead,” the KJ wrote. “The dead man’s brains laid by his side.”

By the time the story ran, it was front page news all over the state and the Bangor police already had three Italian laborers in custody.

Of the trio of detained men, the Portland Daily Press named Capone and Santore the two most likely suspects, already referring to them as “the murderers.”

It was believed, the Portland Press wrote, that Coscia had been killed for his money, about $60 or $75 in all. Most of the Italian railroad men in Maine at the time were only temporary workers who intended to return home with their wages and start new lives.

“Searching through the histories of various Maine railroads and through old newspapers confirms the presence of thousands of Italians in Maine, and their disappearance after construction completed verifies that these were sojourners,” wrote Alfred T. Banfield in a 1992 article in Maine History.

Newspapers speculated Coscia’s money represented several months’ savings.

The Portland paper said Capone and Santore had confessed to committing the crime while in police custody.

“One shot entered the back, just to the left of the spine, and the second entered the brains, just in back of the ear,” the paper said.

Coscia managed to run 90 feet after getting shot before falling down. His killers then flipped him over, tore open his coat and shirt looking for his wallet and beat his head to a pulp with the post.

Capone and Santore were arrested on Saturday. They’d been seen near the woods on Friday night and police said they found bloody clothes at the Brewer shanty they shared. Authorities also found some of the money on Capone and Santore and the rest hidden in a nearby culvert.

Police were convinced they had the right men and Maine’s newspapers agreed.

The Lewiston Evening journal declared the case, “Entirely solved.”

Likewise, the Portland’s Daily Press wrote the police had succeeded in, “Ferreting out all the details.”

The Kennebec Journal said, “Capone and Santore prove to be the guilty ones.”

From then on — just two days after the crime — the pair were habitually referred to as the “Italian Murderers,” by the state’s leading journalists, even though neither had gone to trial.

Maine’s xenophobic local newspaper coverage was indicative of a larger movement in the United States, as immigration from Europe and Asia reached its peak in the late-19th century.

“Immigrants were blamed for taking American jobs,” reads a Library of Congress presentation on the subject. “At the same time, racialist theories circulated in the press, advancing pseudo scientific theories that alleged that ‘Mediterranean’ types were inherently inferior to people of northern European heritage. Drawings and songs caricaturing the new immigrants as childlike, criminal, or subhuman became sadly commonplace.”

“Hemp for two,” read a jaunty headline in the Kennebec Journal when Capone and Santore were found guilty after a two-day trial in February 1884. The jury deliberated for just 75 minutes, and the judge sentenced them to death on the spot.

Neither Capone nor Santore could speak or understand English, and the entire trial had to be interpreted for them on the fly.

Maine had outlawed the death penalty in 1876 after a string of gruesome hangings, but a restoration bill had started making its way through the Legislature in early 1883.

Some politicians argued there had been no increase in crime since the death penalty had been taken off the table. But the state prison warden said, with no worse punishment to fear than a life term in his slammer, many prisoners were then wholly occupying their time with making plans for escape.

The debate raged in committees and on the pages of Maine’s newspapers for months. But, with the legislative session winding down in March 1883, lawmakers voted to reinstate the death penalty. Gov. Frederick Robie signed it into law.

Six months later, Coscia was dead, and Capone and Santore were doomed.

The guilty men met their fate behind the prison walls in Thomaston on April 17, 1885. As usual, Maine’s newspapermen were there to cover the nonpublic event.

“A bright sun shone upon the scene, the green grass was showing itself, the birds outside the prison walls were chirping and everything spoke of life,” wrote the weekly Republican Journal. “These two men amidst the beauty stood upon the gallows in the full bloom of health and life.”

The Kennebec Journal reported that, while the men did not struggle, their bodies spun at the rate of at least sixty revolutions a minute after dropping through the spring-activated trap door.

“At five minutes past twelve, they were bloated, black ghastly corpses dangling on those swirling ropes,” the KJ said.

Capone and Santore were then lowered into coffins and sent to Maine’s only medical school to be used as cadavers.

The state would execute one more man, also a foreigner, that year before doing away with the death penalty for good a few years later.

The Republican Journal washed the state’s collective hands after its final double hanging. The paper assured Maine’s mostly white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant population that they were not to blame — the outsiders had brought their fate upon themselves.

“The crime of these Italians in no way reflects upon the morals of the people of Maine,” the Journal wrote. “They had been in this country but a few years, could not speak our language, even, and whatever cussedness they had, they brought it with them from their own country.”

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.