Sunday, 14 January 2007
January 14, 2007
Decades of debate follow convicts from the gallows to the needle
By ERIC LONG, Williamsport Sun-Gazette
The death penalty has a long history in Pennsylvania and has been the
subject of debate for decades.
This state carried out executions by hanging from colonial days in the late
1600s, but was also the first state to abolish public hangings in 1834,
according to the state Department of Corrections. Each county was
responsible for carrying out its executions, which were held within the
walls of the prison or jail. It wasn't until 1913 that the state took over
execution of capital cases. That is when the electric chair replaced the
hangman's noose as the means of death.
Lycoming County held its first hanging in 1835, when John Erls was executed
after being convicted of poisoning his wife, according to an article by Jim
Good, a copy of which is posted near the Bureau of Police offices in City
According to that article, four other people, including a woman, were
executed by hanging for murder in the county, including the double execution
of George Smith and Catherine Miller on Feb. 3, 1881.
The county conducted its last hanging on Feb. 3, 1914, when John Erble was
executed for shooting his lover, Grace Stidfold, three times on Nov. 8,
1912. She reportedly lingered until she died on March 20, 1913 at her
Erble was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced on Oct. 12, 1913.
He professed his conversion to Christianity before he was led to the gallows
on the east yard of the county jail, where he was pronounced dead 17 minutes
The county commissioners ordered the gallows burned after that hanging,
which, according to Good's article, may have been the last in the state.
According to the Department of Corrections Web site, from 1915 to 1962, 350
people were executed in the electric chair, which replaced the gallows the
same year Erble was executed. Two women are among those who were executed by
The last person electrocuted in the state was Elmo Smith, who was put to
death on April 2, 1962, for raping and murdering a 17-year-old girl.
The 1913 capital punishment law was declared unconstitutional by former
Attorney General Fred Speaker in January 1971, but that decision was
rescinded soon after by Attorney General J. Shane Creamer. The state Supreme
Court ultimately ruled the law unconstitutional.
The law was resurrected in 1974 by the state Legislature, with amendments,
passed over a veto by then Gov. Milton Shapp. The law was again declared
unconstitutional in December 1977.
The Legislature put together a new version of the capital punishment law in
1978 and that has been upheld in several appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The method of execution was changed from electrocution to lethal injection
in 1990. The electric chair, dubbed "Old Smokey," was removed from the State
Correctional Institution at Rockview and was turned over to the Pennsylvania
Historical and Museum Commission.
Keith Zettlemoyer became the first person to be put to death by lethal
injection in this state on May 2, 1995. Since then, one other person has
been executed by that means in this state. That was Gary Heidnik, who was
executed on July 6, 1999, for murdering two women he had held captive in his
There are 222 inmates on death row in Pennsylvania, according to the
Department of Corrections. Five are housed at the Correctional Institution
at Muncy. There, prison spokesman Patti Stover said the cost of housing a
death row inmate is the same as for all other prisoners - $39,216 per year.