CONNECTIONS: William Coy, last man to Berkshire gallows – and first white man
About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the twenty-first century.
Mr. Pomeroy was tired. He and his dog “Captain” took a long walk every day, but not today. Maybe it was the chill October air or the rain threatening, but whatever the cause, Pomeroy was tired and wanted the quickest way home. He called to Captain, turned aside, and took the shortcut through William Coy’s backyard. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Captain could not be called off nor could the dog be silenced. Only minutes after entering Coy’s yard, in the woods beyond the house, Captain began to bark and paw at the earth.
What the dog unearthed was, at first, merely an uninteresting curiosity. It was a man’s suspender, just one. Pomeroy bent, looked, tugged, and then was made sick.
It was gruesome. Part of a man’s suspender was attached to part of a man.
It was mid-October 1893, in the town of Washington, Officer Pease had been suspicious. After all, John Whalen, a boarder at Coy’s house, had been missing since August 29, 1893. When the body was unearthed, assumptions were made.
Officer Pease was followed by the medical examiner Dr. Paddock. They determined that a man had been murdered but how could not be determined because the body was cut into pieces and mutilated.
Villagers gathered at the crime scene. Eventually, one remembered that Whalen had a withered finger on one hand. From that scrap of evidence, the body was identified as John Whalen.
As facts were gathered, a picture emerged. The mattress on the bed in the tenant’s bedroom was cut in places, and on the headboard was something that appeared to be blood. Whalen’s brother said that on August 29, in anticipation of leaving town in search of a better job, Whalen had withdrawn all his money. Pease hypothesized that Whalen was killed in his bed as he slept. The body was then dragged into the woods, cut up, and buried. The motive was money.
It was not a stretch to arrest William Coy. The body was found on his property. He had access to the house, and to Whalen’s bedroom, and Pease found an axe among Coy’s belongings that looked suspicious.
Coy was arrested and taken to the jail on Second Street in Pittsfield. At first, Coy denied everything and feigned shock that a body had been found. Finally, however, after days of interrogation (which did not seem to trouble Coy), and nights in solitary confinement (which did trouble Coy), he confessed.
He engaged Herbert C. Joyner as his attorney. Joyner hinted darkly that there were mitigating circumstances that would save his client from the gallows.
Capital Punishment in Berkshire County
Regardless of the facts in this case – or the mysterious mitigating circumstances –William Coy would be included in the history books because he was the last man ever hanged in Berkshire County.
He was the last man hanged not because Berkshire residents ceased to condemn anyone to death but because the electric chair was finally perfected in Boston. From 1893 on, those condemned to death in Berkshire County were transported to Boston.
William Coy was the only white man ever hanged in Berkshire County. We hanged nine men including Coy in the history of Berkshire County; eight were men of color. Even though white, Coy was hanged because the murder was in furtherance of a robbery. Cutting up the body did not help him generate sympathy during the sentencing.
Coy and one other were hanged on Second Street Pittsfield. The other seven were hanged on Gallows Hill.
Gallows Hill was in Lenox. Seven were hanged there when the court was in Lenox (prior to 1863). Regardless of how sophisticated and humanitarian we think our Berkshire forefathers were, a hanging was an event. Sorry, but the fact is, it was entertainment. People came to Gallows Hill in the thousands. Fathers brought their children; mothers packed picnic lunches. Once the poor fellow was declared dead as a doornail – festivities broke out – liquor, music and dancing.
When the defense was presented, Joyner’s mitigating circumstances did not impress the judge. It was, Joyner said, a crime of passion. Whalen was set to run off with Mrs. Coy. It helped nothing that Mrs. Coy aided the prosecution to the best of her ability presenting them with Coy’s bloody coat, and telling all who would listen that he was a mean drunk and a poor husband.
William Coy was baptized in the Pittsfield jail two days before Christmas 1892. Joyner was able to postpone the hanging scheduled February 24 by traveling to Boston and appealing to the governor. Nevertheless, William Coy, 33, was hanged by the neck until dead at 10:30 a.m. March 2, 1893. The first white man and the last man to meet that fate in Berkshire swung without much of an audience. In the thirty years since Gallows Hill, the public fascination with hangings had ceased.