The Sad Story of Edward Rector

While recently researching some background information on the American legal system, for another story I’m piecing together, I came across this despatch, wired by a local reporter from Baton Rouge in Louisiana to the news desk of the New York Herald in 1884. This poignant tale has undoubtedly been long forgotten; but nevertheless serves to remind us of the brutality of life just 150 years ago. The article was published in the New York press, buried on the inside pages, and probably not raising more than an passing interest, as busy New Yorkers got on with the business of the day.

Despatch from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to the New York Herald, dated January 4th 1884

‘Edward Rector, coloured, was hanged in the jail yard here to-day for the murder of Duncan Williams in this city in December 1882 by stabbing him in the back. The murder was cold-blooded and cowardly. Rector also murdered his stepfather without provocation, but escaped punishment by laxity in the Courts. For the past few weeks the culprit has been preparing to meet his fate. On Tuesday he was immersed a Baptist minister. He expressed himself ready to die. On the gallows Rector exhibited much coolness. After religious exercises he addressed the people in loud, clear voice. He likened himself to a looking glass, in which all should look and witness what may happen to them. “Avoid whisky shops,” he said, “or liquor may bring you to the gallows, as it has me.” He added that “God had blessed my needy soul. I am going home to Jesus. If you have children, tell them to let whisky alone. Put away your pistols and knives or they will bring you here.”

Rector then inquired "Where is my little boy? Look at me my son, and take warning.”

The child was present, weeping bitterly. The Sheriff drew down the black cap, affixed the rope, and stepped off the scaffold, closely followed by Rector. The culprit was then taken back to the drop, but refused to remain, following the deputies when they left. He was forced back again and again, but, finally, so great were his efforts, that the united strength of three men was necessary to keep him on the trap. Rector grasped the rope about his neck – so as to prevent the noose from choking his neck, and his hold could not be released by the officers. So prolonged was the struggle, and so great the display of strength by Rector, that the Sheriff was compelled to call upon the bystanders for assistance. All this time Rector was uttering the most terrifying screams. The officers then attempted to force him upon his knees, when another struggle commenced, and it took several men to throw him down on the trap. He fought hard, and begged most piteously to spared. The struggle for life continued for some time. Finally, at two minutes past two, the doomed man, bound in cords, was thrown earthward from the trap, falling six feet. Life was not extinct until the expiration of eighteen minutes after the drop fell, as shown by the pulsations. The body was cut down at twenty-two minutes past two o'clock; and turned over to his brother. Two hundred spectators witnessed the execution. The scene was most horrible, and caused many to shudder and turn away, but the justice of the sentence was acknowledged by all.’

The Sad Story of Edward Rector

Was Edward Rector innocent? Was his final, desperate struggle one of a wronged man, or just unimaginable fear? Perhaps he was of limited mental capacity, a factor unlikely to garner him any sympathy in 1882. The audience, although shocked by the length of time he took to die, seemed to believe that justice had been done.

here is little information available to ever know, although Rector seems to have admitted his guilt. His name is just one more added to the depressing list of executions in Louisiana’s turbulent past. This detailed catalogue, provides a little context to the depressing regularity of the events detailed above. Edward Rector appears as little more than a footnote, at number 247 on the list of 632 official executions that took place in Louisiana between 1722 and 1961. There were many, many more, never officially recorded or sanctioned. Note the ethnic breakdown of the victims and the method of execution.

After the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1978, a further 28 people have been executed in Louisiana. However, it has been more than a decade since the last execution in the state, that of Gerald Bordelon in January 2010. This might give the impression of a more enlightened attitude, however it is not as it would first appear. 68 people sit on Louisiana's death row, with no execution dates set. Though the state historically has been tough on crime; and holds the dubious distinction as the nation's incarceration capital, Louisiana seems to be doing very little to carry out its death penalty. Louisiana's execution protocols are tied up in litigation, and Department of Corrections officials claim they cannot obtain lethal injection drugs, amid pushback from pharmaceutical manufacturers. Not surprisingly, people on opposite ends of the capital punishment debate disagree about the driving forces behind the drop in executions. Opponents of the death penalty say rising concerns from both the public, and from State Prosecutors, over the cost of such cases, coupled with racial disparities in death sentences, and high-profile exonerations have lessened support for capital punishment.

Politically, the position is an awkward one. Louisiana Governor, John Bel Edwards, a Democrat recently re-elected for a second term, refuses to disclose his personal opinion about the death penalty.

Whilst Louisiana’s depressingly long list of executed prisoners may yet be added to, it seems unlikely it will ever reach the levels endured during the time of Edward Rector. Although that may be little comfort to the 68 men still currently on death row.

The Sad Story of Edward Rector