A cartes-de-visite souvenir photograph taken by a Waldoboro photographer probably shows a disheveled Daniel Wilkinson around 1883. Wilkinson was hanged in 1885 for the murder of a Bath police officer and was the last man executed in Maine. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Public

PORTLAND, Maine — Daniel Wilkinson, 38, was the last person ever executed by a government on Maine soil. The Englishman, convicted of shooting a police officer to death in Bath, was hanged 137 years ago last month.

After his death, capital punishment died on an undramatic vote at the State House where many legislators failed to show up and cast ballots.

But Wilkinson didn’t go so quietly.

First, after the murder, he ran, leading investigators on a multi-city chase up the Maine coast. When caught, Wilkinson confessed but later refuted it on the witness stand at his trial. On the scaffold he taunted his executioner, then nearly thrashed his way out of the noose around his neck.

But all Wilkinson’s struggles were in vain.

Though poorly tied, the knot around his neck was tight enough to asphyxiate the condemned man.

More from this series

It was the third execution Maine carried out that year, two years after Wilkinson committed his crime.

Just after midnight on Sept. 4, 1883, Bath Constable William “Uncle Billy” Lawrence, 63, and another officer named Kingsley, were on a routine foot patrol around a collection of buildings along the Kennebec River waterfront.

At one point, the pair split up. Kingsley headed for Commercial Street while Lawrence chose Front Street.

On Commercial, Kingsley discovered Wilkinson and an accomplice trying to break into the D.C Gould ship chandlery. When the would-be burglars spotted the officer, they took off running.

“I blew my whistle when they ran and called for them to stop, or I’d shoot,” Kingsley said in a Bath Daily Times story.

They didn’t stop and Kingsley fired.

The officer then lost sight of the two suspects when they ran behind a junk shop, coming out on Front Street, where Lawrence grabbed Wilkinson by the shoulders.

The Englishman then shot the officer in the face with a .32 caliber pistol, killing him. A coroner’s report later stated that the slug lodged at the base of Lawrence’s brain.

Lawrence, a former sea captain, left behind a widow and daughter. He’s still remembered in Bath. A placard memorializes him at the scene of his death and Lawrence’s portrait still hangs in the police station lobby.

After Lawrence collapsed in the street, Wilkinson and his accomplice split up. Wilkinson fled toward Thorne Head at the north end of town. A posse was soon assembled but they couldn’t find either men.

Wilkinson hid at Thorne Head until dawn when he stole a skiff and rowed across the river to Woolwich. Today, the head is a nature preserve with several rocky crevices, all known as “Murderer’s Cave” by generations of schoolchildren trying to scare themselves and one another.

From Woolwich, Wilkinson walked to Wiscasset and caught a train to Rockland. There, he boarded a steamship to Bangor where he found work and blended into a logging operation.

Wilkinson’s accomplice fled to England.

With Kingsley as the only witness to the attempted break in, rumors began to circulate pinning Lawrence’s death on his fellow officer’s ill-advised shot in the dark.

The tiny Bath Police department was without the means to mount a statewide or international manhunt. It would be another 40 years before the Maine State Police would be formed.

So, the Bath Police Department hired a private investigator from Boston.

The Massachusetts gumshoe took a description of the Wilkinson provided by Kingsley to boarding houses down the coast. In Portland, a lodging manager recognized the description, telling the detective the man was English and had left without paying his bill.

What’s more, she’d recently gotten a letter from him asking her to forward his things to a Bangor boarding house.

It was all the Boston investigator needed.

Hopping the first train to the Queen City, he soon had Wilkinson in custody. Bath police officers came to collect Wilkinson, transporting him to an Augusta jail where they held an impromptu news conference, telling reporters two astonishing things.

First, they already knew Wilkinson. He’d been convicted of burglary in Woolwich a couple of years prior but had broken out of the Bath jail before could be taken to the State Prison.

Also, the officers said Wilkinson had confessed to killing Lawrence as they rode the train south from Bangor. The officers were at pains to point out that the confession definitely cleared their fellow lawman, Kingsley, in Lawrence’s death.

The newsmen on hand dutifully transcribed the officers’ statements and pronounced Wilkinson guilty.

“The doom of the murderer is sealed,” the Kennebec Journal wrote. “He must inevitably hang.”

Wilkinson stood trial in Sagadahoc County in January 1884. He retracted his confession while on the stand but was convicted and sentenced to death, anyway.

history of Maine’s death penalty

The Republican Journal reported that the verdict was popular in Bath.

“It is the universal expression of the citizens of that city that the verdict rendered is justifiable,” it said, “and that the condemned murderer should receive the full penalty of the law, death by hanging.”

After a string of horrific executions, Maine took capital punishment off the books in 1876 but reinstated it in the spring of 1883, just a few months before Lawrence was killed.

Wilkinson was scheduled to meet his maker at the State Prison on Thomaston in November 1885. In April that year, Maine executed Italian-born convicted murderers Raphael Capone and Carmine Santore.

The Republican Journal newspaper provided extensive coverage of all three executions.

“Since the execution of the Italians last April, Wilkinson has contended that he would hang,” the weekly paper wrote, “arguing that the people of Maine were prejudiced against foreigners and that no foreign born man would ever receive justice at their hands.”

Indeed, counting Wilkinson, who hailed originally from London, five of the final six persons executed in Maine were either Black or foreign born. At the same time, scores of other convicted murderers had their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment.

At 11:50 a.m. on Nov. 21, Wilkinson was marched out of his cell to the prison yard gallows.

Standing upon the gallow’s trap door, a deputy sheriff bound Wilkinson’s legs together.

“Have you got it tight enough to suit you?” the condemned man asked.

Wilkinson then turned to the sheriff, who would soon spring the trap.

“This is the way you murder them for $50 apiece,” the condemned cop killer said.

The Journal described Wilkinson as calm. He did not tremble and seemed to ignore the clergyman praying for his eternal soul, nearby.

“He’s plucky,” someone observed from somewhere in the crowd of 30 or so people watching the non-public execution unfold.

When the sheriff tripped the spring, Wilkinson shot down seven feet, where the rope broke his fall but not his neck.

Instead, he struggled for several minutes, his shoulders shrugging and body convulsing.

history of Maine’s death penalty

“After hanging 17 minutes, physicians pronounced the man dead and the body was lowered into the coffin,” the Journal reported.

The paper also said the noose around Wilkinson’s neck had not been tight enough and it slipped in front of one of his ears, causing him to die from strangulation.

The previous four hangings had also been gruesome, slow affairs and after Wilkinson’s exit, Maine legislators again outlawed the death penalty.

The bill passed the House in 1887 by a margin of 87 to 27, though a full 40 representatives avoided the sticky subject altogether by not showing up to vote.

Other bills aimed at reinstating the death penalty have been introduced 14 times since Wilkinson’s death, most recently in 2005. But most have failed to get out of committee and none have made it to a governor’s desk.

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.