The Botched Hanging of William Williams

A couple of months after President Theodore Roosevelt had given the inaugural address for his second term of office, an itinerant named William Williams was convicted of first-degree murder. In one of Minnesota’s most infamous crimes, Williams had killed a teenage boy, Johnny Keller, and his mother. An English laborer, Williams had worked as a miner and a steamfitter before befriending the teenager two years earlier while they were both hospitalized for diphtheria. Keller had roomed with Williams in different places in St. Paul, and the two had traveled together to Winnipeg in the summer of 1904. Williams and Keller’s father quarreled over his relationship with Johnny. The father told Williams that he would rather put his son in a reform school than let the boy fraternize with Williams.

In a fit of rage, Williams shot Johnny Keller and his mother in April 1905 when the boy refused to go back to Winnipeg with him. Williams had written letters to Keller that had contained professions of love intermixed with threats. These had gone unanswered. “I want you to believe that I love you now as much as I ever did,” read one letter. “It won’t be long before we will be together.” Another read, “Keep your promise to me this time, old boy, as it is your last chance. You understand what I mean, and should have sense enough to keep your promise.” When Williams returned to St. Paul intent on seeing Johnny Keller, the boy’s father was away. At the Keller home, Williams shot Johnny at close range while he lay in bed. A bullet pierced the back of Keller’s skull, leaving powder marks and singed hair, and another bullet wound was found in the back of the boy’s neck. With Keller’s death, their turbulent relationship, thought by many to be of a homosexual nature, came to an abrupt end.

The murder trial of William Williams began in May 1905. A police officer testified that Williams appeared at the station on the night of the shooting and said that he had shot someone at No. 1 Reid Court. A doctor also took the stand for the state, testifying that Williams told him he did not know why he shot Johnny Keller, only that he wanted the boy to come with him. Williams himself testified that he had not slept for three nights prior to the shooting, had been drinking that day, and that Mrs. Keller scolded him when he showed up at the Keller residence. After saying she would not let her son go with him, Williams testified, he and the boy had gone to bed until the mother rushed in and seized the boy, screaming that she would not let him go. At that point, Williams said, he lost all consciousness. He claimed that the next thing he knew he was in her room with a revolver in his hands and the room full of smoke. Williams’s unsuccessful defense at trial, as articulated by his lawyer, was “emotional insanity.”

Williams’s case would put the Ramsey County sheriff, three Twin Cities newspapers, and the state’s death penalty law on a collision course. On May 19, 1905, Williams was found guilty of intentionally killing Johnny Keller, whom Williams, in the Minnesota Supreme Court’s words, had “a strong and strange attachment to.” “There is no evidence to support this defense of complete lapse of memory and consciousness,” the court would rule later, “except the defendant’s improbable testimony to the effect that up to the moment the fatal shots were fired he remembered everything in detail and everything that occurred after they were fired, but has no recollection of firing them.” The deck was stacked against Williams from the start. Williams made incriminating statements prior to trial, his suspected sexual orientation probably aroused bias, and to make matters worse, any potential juror who opposed the death penalty would not be allowed to sit on his jury. During jury selection, Ramsey County Attorney Thomas Kane had successfully excluded otherwise acceptable jurors because of their scruples against the death penalty.

The early twentieth century’s judicial system moved with considerable speed. Right after Williams’s verdict was read, the trial judge told him that he would be “hanged by the neck until dead.” The appeal process was relatively quick too. On December 8, 1905, the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed Williams’s conviction and death sentence, saying Williams had shot Keller with “premeditated design to effect his death.” One justice dissented, however, believing that Williams should get a new trial because of irregularities in the proceedings and skepticism about whether Williams really had committed a premeditated murder. The killing had the earmarks of a crime of passion, but the appeal failed.

Even though he opposed the death penalty, Minnesota Governor John A. Johnson felt compelled to enforce the state’s laws. He thus wasted no time in setting Williams’s execution date for February 13, 1906. Because Ramsey County Sheriff Anton Miesen had been known to invite large numbers of his friends to be execution spectators, Johnson sent Miesen a sternly worded letter accompanying Williams’s death warrant. The letter reminded Sheriff Miesen to “observe” that a state law enacted in 1889 “is very specific as to who may witness executions of this state.” His letter then commanded Miesen, in no uncertain terms, to rigorously adhere to the provisions of that law:


In view of violations of this law in the past I deem it necessary to charge you with a strict observance of the law. It has been customary in some cases for the sheriff to designate many people as deputy sheriffs for the sole purpose of permitting them to be present and witness the execution.

Persons permitted by you, except those specifically named in the statute, must not exceed six in number. I trust that the custom that has hitherto obtained will not obtain in this instance.

It is the duty of this office to hold all officers of the law to a strict accountability in the performance of their duties in upholding the majesty of the law and it would become my duty in case this law is violated to take proper action in the premises.

Believing you will do your full duty in this matter and be governed strictly by the letter and spirit of the law, I am, sir, yours with great respect.

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