In late 1852, the town of Mattawan, Delaware, was at very long last its quiet self again. The tragedy that marked the year as Mattawan's annus horribilis was now thankfully over. The sad tale had its origins in the betrothal of a beauty named Mary Caroline Austin to one Mr. Edgar Worthington, but Mary's father thought him wholly unworthy of her hand or any other part of her and forbade the marriage. That the elderly Mr. Austin was correct in his assessment was shockingly proved by Worthington himself, who responded to his rejection by slashing Miss Austin to death with a razor.
At his trial for murder, Worthington claimed that the incident was a suicide pact gone awry and Mary Austin killed herself. While his own injuries proved less than fatal, Worthington maintained that he cheated the reaper only through a cruel twist of fate (or of the razor). The defense was no deterrent to justice; the jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to death. But his story won him enough sympathy among the tender-hearted to inspire his friends to bust him out of jail before his sentence could be carried out. Soon he was recaptured, and before anyone could help him cheat death a third time, Worthington was executed.
Some time passed. The town calmed. The sad affair was now finished.
Then someone came forward with a bizarre tale indeed. The witness was a Captain Karsoll, who had recently traveled to the American interior only to rush back to Mattawan with a report that while passing near St. Joseph, Missouri, he had seen, in the flesh, Edgar Worthington, the hanged man, perfectly, awfully alive.
But surely there was some mistake, the town fathers cried. They'd all seen him hanged in the usual public fashion. The rope was fitted snugly around his neck. He was dropped the customary distance. And just in case his neck didn't break, they allowed the wretched killer to swing well past the time required to choke out his life. When Worthington's corpse was finally cut down, he appeared to be fully deceased. His body was turned over to the town physician and buried in the churchyard. The hanging was performed correctly in every respect--there was never any doubt on that point.
But the traveler was adamant in his indentification--enough so that Worthington's grave was dug up and his coffin opened. And inside, they discovered a log. (Now, to find a murderer replaced in the casket by a length of wood was the stuff of myth in the 19th century; an "urban legend," in today's terms. The town was as shocked as we might be if, say, Elvis Presley turned up on this Sunday's edition of 60 Minutes to explain where he's been all this time.)
The Austin family took matters into its own hands, and following the traveler's clews, Mary's brother tracked down Worthington, found him, shot him, and extracted from the man a full confession of his amazing escape from the gallows. It seems that the town physician, like so many others, believed the defense of a suicide gone awry and thought Worthington unworthy of the rope; therefore, immediately prior to the hanging, the doctor laid open his windpipe and inserted a tube (a tracheotomy, in other words) that would allow him to survive the hanging, assuming there was no facture in the neck.
After providing this explanation, Worthington then finally died; his allotment of three dances with death was used up, and he could not escape a bullet fired in vengeance.
"The Unfortunate Lovers," in Queer Books, Edmund Lester Pearson, Kennikat Press, 1970 reissue.