The Execution of Wallace Wilkerson

AuthorJames R. Acker,Ryan Champagne
Published date01 December 2017
Date01 December 2017
Subject MatterArticles
The Execution of Wallace
Wilkerson: Precedent
and Portent
James R. Acker
and Ryan Champagne
Wallace Wilkerson was executed by a Utah firing squad in 1879 after the U.S. Supreme Court
affirmed the constitutionality of his sentence. Shots from the marksmen’s rifles missed his heart. Not
strapped into the chair where he had been seated, Wilkerson lurched onto the ground and
exclaimed, “My God!...They missed it!” He groaned, continued breathing, and was pronounced
dead some 27 min later. Relying on contemporaneous news accounts and legal documents, this
article describes Wilkerson’s crime, the judicial decisions upholding his death sentence, and his
execution. It next examines ensuing methods of capital punishment from the electric chair through
lethal injection and notes persistent gaps between principle and practice in the continuing quest for
increasingly humane modes of execution. The article concludes by suggesting that Wilkerson’s
botched firing squad execution harbingered difficulties which continue to plague capital punishment.
The implications for the future of the death penalty—a long-standing and resilient practice in
American criminal justice—and the ultimate legacy of Wallace Wilkerson remain uncertain, although
starkly evident is the daunting and perhaps impossible challenge of reconciling the paradox inherent
in the concept of a “humane execution.”
executions, capital punishment, death penalty, Supreme Court
Many people with a passing interest in the death penalty know Wilkerson v. Utah (1879) as the first
U.S. Supreme Court case addressing the constitutionality of capital punishment, in which the
justices authorized execution by firing squad. The opinion includes oft-quoted language describing
the reach of the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishments clause:
Difficulty would attend the effort to define with exactness the extent of [this] constitutional provi-
sion ...but it is safe to affirm that punishments of torture ...and all others in the same line of unneces-
sary cruelty, are forbidden .... (pp. 135–136)
School of Criminal Justice, University at Albany, State University of New York, Albany, NY, USA
Corresponding Author:
James R. Acker, School of Criminal Justice, University at Albany, State University of New York, 135 Western Avenue, Albany,
NY 12222, USA.
Criminal Justice Review
2017, Vol. 42(4) 349-367
ª2017 Georgia State University
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016817702193
Examples of the proscribed class of punishments included such practices as being “embowelled
alive, beheaded, and quartered” as well as “public dissection ...and burning alive ...” (p. 135).
These incidents of the ruling have carried forward and remain foundational principles in the Court’s
modern death penalty jurisprudence (Baze v. Rees, 2008, p. 48; Furman v. Georgia, 1972, pp. 264–
265, Brennan, J., concurring in the judgment; Glossip v. Gross, 2015, p. 2732–2792, Sotomayor, J.,
Regrettably, other aspects of this landmark decision and its aftermath have largely been forgotten.
Following the Supreme Court’s ringing pronouncements, Wallace Wilkerson’s execution went
alarmingly awry. His botched firing squad execution was an ironic harbinger of the expansive gulf
between capital punishment theory and practice which persists to this day. Indeed, this lesser known
coda of Wilkerson v. Utah now potentially stands poised to supplant the decision’s intended teach-
ings and represent its most enduring lesson. In this article, we first describe Wallace Wilkerson’s
crime, trial, and the disposition of his case in the Utah territorial courts. We next examine the
Supreme Court’s conspicuously modest ruling, which paved the way for Wilkerson’s execution
by firing squad. After reporting contemporary accounts of th e mismanaged execution, we note
parallels between it and later executions carried out by alternative means, each designed to be more
humane and more reliable than its predecessors. We conclude with thoughts about the striking
parallels between this 19th-century case and current capital punishment practices, and what they
herald for the future.
Wallace Wilkerson: Crime, Punishment, and the Utah Territorial Courts
Born in Quincy, IL, in 1844, Wallace Wilkerson moved to territorial Utah with his parents and
brothers at age 8. He was a baptized Mormon, although by his own admission, he was “not a
religious man” (Salt Lake Herald, 1879, p. 1). After boyhood, he resided for a time in California
but returned to Utah in 1876 to visit his family in Homansville, a small town in the mountains
roughly 40 miles southwest of Provo. He found work, decided to remain in the area, and soon
married. He stood 501100 and was slim at 150 pounds. His p hysiognomy, as described in news
accounts colored by his depiction as a killer and perhaps inspired by the contemporaneous theorizing
of Cesare Lombroso (1876/2006), was distinctive because of “the extreme smallness of his head”
which boasted a “full and well-developed” base,
where the animal faculties are claimed to lie .. .while the forehead was low and sloping and the intel-
lectual faculties also apparently dwarfed. ...On the whole, he presented what might be termed a cada-
verous appearance and the very sight of him inspired a feeling of fear intermixed with revulsion. (Salt
Lake Herald, 1879, p. 1)
A photograph of him is not so unflattering (see Appendix).
William Baxter ran a saloon in the nearby town of Eureka. Wilkerson’s behavior at a dance in the
saloon angered Baxter, and according to Wilkerson, Baxter rushed at him with a pistol, kicked him in
the ribs, and threatened to kill him (Salt Lake Her ald, 1879, p. 1). Newspaper articles offered
different descriptions of Baxter. “No man had more friends than Baxter” said one (Sutherland,
1877), but another cautioned: “When sober he [Baxter] bore the reputation of being a pleasant,
peaceable man; when under the influence of liquor, disagreeable, overbearing and a bully” (Salt
Lake Herald, 1879, p. 1). The bad blood that existed between Baxter and Wilkerson was prelude to
their fateful game of cribbage in a Homansville saloon on June 11, 1877 (Gillespie, 1991, p. 48).
Witnesses described the men quarreling, Baxter’s pocketing the money they were playing for and
refusing Wilkerson’s demand to return it, followed by Wilkerson shooting Baxter once and then
350 Criminal Justice Review 42(4)

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