Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jesse Harding Pomeroy

Buried Alive

Capital punishment in 19th century America was typically swift, with the average time from sentencing to execution rarely extending beyond one year. But for a teen like Jesse, then 14, there was considerable argument against carrying out the punishment. Massachusetts had never executed anyone so young, and calls for clemency came from all corners. Equally strong, however, were the cries for justice for Horace Millen and Katie Curran.

The decision was left to Gov. William Gaston, who did what any good politician would do. He appointed a committee to study the question and report back. When the committee came back hopelessly divided, Gaston turned to the people for a public hearing. After listening to a day of testimony from both sides, Gaston thanked the people and his committee and said he would take the matter under advisement.

Many weeks passed, during which another Boston child died at the hands of another mentally disturbed young man, this time in his 20s, and public outcry for a decision in the Pomeroy case grew to a fever pitch. Gaston brought his committee back together for more debate and a final vote. By a vote of five to four, the committee recommended letting Pomeroy's sentence stand. As soon as Gaston signed the death warrant, Jesse would hang.

But Gaston remained resolute in his unwillingness to execute Jesse. His stand probably cost him re-election, and in 1876 Alexander Rice, who during his campaign pledged to hang Jesse Pomeroy, was elected governor of Massachusetts.

In August 1876, two years from the time of Jesse's trial, when hunger for his blood had subsided in the general public, Rice called together his advisors and revisited the fate of Jesse Pomeroy. The people were distant enough from the time and place of his crimes to accept punishment less than death, the counselors argued, but the punishment must still be severe.

Rice agreed. Quietly, without much press attention, he commuted Jesse's death sentence to life in prison. To make the sentence more than just life behind bars, Rice ordered that Jesse serve the sentence in solitary confinement. Essentially, the governor ordered Jesse Pomeroy buried alive.

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