Execution debate up yet again

CONDEMNED MAN: Noble Faulder
CONDEMNED MAN: Noble Faulder

One hundred years ago, a condemned New Zealander was at the centre of a passionate debate on the death penalty in the American state of Oregon. Matthew Gray reports on a saga that is still playing out today.

A century has passed since an American hangman placed a noose around New Zealander Thomas Noble Joseph Faulder's neck and sent him plummeting to a quick and violent death.

But history is repeating itself in Oregon - the scene of Noble Faulder's execution - where 100 years later, state governor John Kitzhaber is urging legislators to abolish capital punishment.

NOOSE: The death penalty debate goes back as far as 1912 in Oregon.
NOOSE: The death penalty debate goes back as far as 1912 in Oregon.

The same debate was raging through 1912 while Faulder and three others on death row languished in their jail cells waiting to see whether public opinion would swing in their direction.

Leading the charge then was Governor Oswald West who put the hangings on hold pending a public referendum scheduled to coincide with an election in November.

Ironically the same men who he hoped to save had no interest in a reprieve.

CONDEMNED ROW: Where prisoners await death by lethal injection in San Quentin prison in the United States.
CONDEMNED ROW: Where prisoners await death by lethal injection in San Quentin prison in the United States.

The best outcome they could hope for with a repeal of the death penalty was life in prison.

And all preferred a swift death to life in a cage.

They got their wish after voters returned West to office but kicked his humanitarian stance to touch.

The four were hanged at the Salem Penitentiary on December 13 - the day that fast became known as "Bloody Friday" by West's supporters.

Faulder's story starts in Auckland where he was born to contractor, landowner and local body politician Thomas Faulder in 1883.

His English-born father had hopped the Tasman from Victoria to Christchurch about 20 years earlier after making money on the Victorian goldfields and married Dinah Plaskett, a young woman from his hometown of Cumberland.

Thomas died of chronic heart disease in 1897 and his business affairs passed into the hands of his widow and an elder son.

Noble, just 14, showed little interest and grew increasingly restless as he moved into his later teens.

He was 20 when he travelled to the United States in 1903 and spent six years at sea before working as a miner and prospector in Alaska and a cowboy in Nevada.

But it was in Oregon, while working as a plough shaker on a railway construction team that he came unstuck in 1911.

Faulder was camped with his mates not far from the city of Chiloquin in Klamath County.

The 86 kilogram, 1.8 metre tall adventurer had acquired an unhealthy dependency on booze - as had many of his peers - and the quick temper that often came with it made him a man to be wary of.

On Sunday, August 6, Faulder spent much of the afternoon drinking with workmates at Fort Klamath before making the wagon trip back to camp.

Faulder was ready for his crib by the time he crawled back into his tent.

Sleep, however, was the last thing on his mind when he found a dog he had befriended lying dead on his blanket.

Stray dogs were a problem at the site and several had been poisoned in the weeks prior by camp cook Louis Gebhardt who had problems keeping the animals away from his supplies.

Faulder flew into a rage and confronted the unrepentant chef, shooting him with a rifle as the argument between them spiralled out of control.

He attempted to have a second go at it when he realised his foe was still alive but was restrained by onlookers.

Despondent, angry and still half cut, he went back to his own digs, placed the muzzle of his 30-30 rifle against his torso and pulled the trigger.

The shot punctured a lung but failed to kill him so he tried again - this time using a shotgun. His friends heard the blast and rushed to his aid.

Faulder was not expected to live but made a miraculous recovery after several weeks in hospital.

Gebhardt had meanwhile succumbed to his wounds and his killer was transferred to jail to await trial on a charge of murder.

Faulder's supporters set up a defence of insanity in an effort to keep him from the gallows.

His biggest champion was his brother, Ernest, who was sent by the family to the US, said newspaper reports, to "testify as to the mental imperfection of the prisoner".

Several other witnesses were also called on to discuss Faulder's state of mind.

Workmates spoke of a man who "had a wild stare and did crazy things" when under the influence of alcohol. At least one nurse said she had no doubt her former patient was crazy after observing him for several weeks.

Their efforts did little to sway jury members who found the defendant guilty in the first degree on March 10, 1912.

Faulder appeared before Judge Benson on May 3, 1912, and was sentenced to hang.

Sitting with him in prison awaiting a similar fate were convicted murderers Frank Garrison, Mike Morgan and HE Roberts.

All had their original dates with the hangman suspended during the political debate that led up to the referendum and a visiting newspaper journalist reported a sense of frustration among them as they pondered possible outcomes.

"We do not want life imprisonment," they said. "We prefer death."

A date for a mass hanging was eventually set down for December 13, 1912.

Governor West, bitterly disappointed by the referendum result, continued to receive hundreds of requests from constituents asking him to intervene and commute the death sentences to life imprisonment.

Only he, as governor, had the power to do so.

West took a special interest in Faulder's plight and that of another murderer, John W Taylor.

A last minute reprieve was granted to Taylor a day before the hanging was scheduled to take place.

A subsequent rescheduling of execution times had many speculating that Faulder also might be spared.

Public demonstrations took place in different parts of Oregon and even in San Francisco before the execution.

Telegrams pleading for leniency flooded in to the governor's office and scores of speakers including rabbis, professional and church people took to street corners to protest.

To no avail.

Faulder, reportedly "silent, taciturn, awaiting the end stoically and talking to no-one", was marched to a gallows in the south wing execution chamber of Salem Penitentiary, Oregon with the three other condemned men.

The gallows contained two traps and the first man brought forward was the convicted murderer Garrison.

He shouted his innocence as the hangman placed the noose around his throat - claiming he was a victim of conspiracy.

Faulder - "tall, wiry and immensely strong" - took his place a few seconds later.

Tacoma Times journalist Fred Boalt was among the 100 or so spectators.

"My sharpest impression of the execution at Salem on Black Friday was of Noble Faulder standing against the rail of the scaffold and giving the first half of his "turn" on Governor West's "bloody feast". Boalt wrote in an editorial on December 18, 1912.

"He thrust out one clenched hand with an incisive gesture and said: "Hanging will never cure crime. You must get to the root of the evil."

"It was as if he proposed delivering an academic discussion on capital punishment. It was a good start. It was to the point. But he stopped there, and, stepping back, took his place upon the trap."

Faulder and Garrison were hanged at about 11.20am and pronounced dead at 11.26am.

Governor West was not present.

"I believe capital punishment to be a relic of barbarism," he said a few hours earlier.

"In letting these men hang I am obeying the mandate of the people. Out at this gaol at this minute they are having a bloody feast."

Faulder's remains were buried in an unmarked plot at the Salem Pioneer Cemetery on December 14, 1912.

His simple coffin bore the words "at rest" and his name is included on the family tombstone at Purewa in Auckland where the entire saga was mostly unreported and not well known.

Governor West continued with his efforts and capital punishment was repealed, by a slim margin, in 1914. It was restored, by constitutional amendment, in 1920.


Capital punishment has been a political hot potato in the state of Oregon since the first execution was carried out in 1851.

It was outlawed from 1914 to 1920, 1964 to 1978 and for a period during the 1980s.

Constituents have, between times, voted to reinstate it and 37 people are now on death row, awaiting lethal injection.

Modern-day governor John Kitzhaber has tackled the issue with a similar fervency to his historic counterparts. Last year he waded into the case of twice-convicted murderer Gary Haugen who had waived his own appeals and resigned himself to his fate.

Kitzhaber issued a reprieve against the inmate's wishes. His intervention has since been declared invalid by a lower court and he is now appealing that decision. Haugen, like Faulder so many years earlier, has no interest in the wide debate around capital punishment. He just wants to die.


The Timaru Herald