One is hard-pressed indeed to find any death penalty cases from Michigan, because never has this state put someone to death for murder. Never. Oh, the territorial government tried it, but the last case was a terrible precedent that guaranteed the ultimate penalty would never come into use here.
In Michigan's early days, the death sentence was virtually unknown. One early experience near the territory involved a Detroiter named Patrick Fitzpatrick. In 1828, he was living in an inn on the south side of the Detroit River, in a town then known as Sandwich, now called Windsor, Ontario. When the innkeeper's daughter was found raped and murdered, Fitzpatrick was convicted and hanged for the crime.
Many immigrants to Michigan territory came from New York (as did my ancestors), and one of the New Yorkers was a man by the name of Stephen Simmons, who opened a tavern on the Detroit-Chicago Road. One night in 1830, Simmons, who was a heavy drinker, got in an argument with his wife. He struck her in the abdomen. Sadly, the blow landed just so, and she died.
Simmons was put on trial in Detroit for the killing. It turned out that Simmons had a nasty reputation as an abusive drunk. The key witnesses against him were his own two daughters, who told the jury of his whiskey-fueled rages, his savage beatings, and the details of their mother's death. It seems that Simmons came home drunk that night, woke his wife, and told her to join him in drink. The girls fled upstairs, knowing what would come next; when his wife refused to get drunk with him, he hit her in the stomach and killed her.
The jury thought the man despicable and worthy of the death penalty--even though there was never any shred of proof that the murder was premeditated, and, strictly speaking, it wasn't murder. Simmons was found guilty, and the judge sentenced him to die by hanging.
The county sheriff sharply disagreed with the verdict and sentence, and, strictly speaking once again, the sheriff was right. But the governor of the territory, Lewis Cass, wanted to see justice meted, so Governor Cass appointed an enthusiastic hotelkeeper who volunteered to act as sheriff for the purpose of putting Simmons to death. The real sheriff resigned in disgust.
The new sheriff made quite a production of the procedure, which would take place at Farmer Street at Gratiot Avenue, for those who know downtown Detroit. The new sheriff also arranged temporary seating around the gallows, vendors to sell refreshments, and a military band to perform a two-hour concert before the big event. Advertisements, newspaper coverage, and word of mouth spread throughout the territory, and hundreds, if not thousands, of spectators came for the gala.
The appointed day came, the band played, and the condemned man was led to the gallows. The crowds listened to Simmons' speech on the evils of drink and then watched in growing shame as he burst into a hymn:
Show pity, Lord, O Lord, forgive, Let a repenting rebel live; Are not Thy mercies full and free? May not a sinner trust in Thee? My crimes are great, but can't surpass The power and glory of Thy grace, Great God, Thy nature hath no bound, So let Thy pardoning love be found.
Well, pardoning love was nowhere in sight at the moment, and Simmons was dropped. But his hymn, his booming voice begging for forgiveness, haunted the assembly, and the backlash began.
And then, five years after Simmons was put to death for an offense that--terrible though it was--did not warrant the death penalty, the old case of Patrick Fitzpatrick, the man that had been hanged just south of the river in 1828, was back in the news. Because another man confessed on his deathbed to raping and killing the innkeeper's daughter. Patrick Fitzpatrick was innocent.
Between the Simmons and the Fitzpatrick cases, Michiganders developed a sour taste for the death penalty, and in 1847, Michigan became the first state in the Union--indeed, by some accounts, the first democracy in the English-speaking world--to abolish the death penalty.
Simmons was not the last man hanged in Michigan, though the authorities would have had it that way. In 1938, the federal government hanged a bank robber by the name of Tony Chebatoris for killing a bystander during a holdup in Midland. Then Governor Frank Murphy begged President Roosevelt to move Chebatoris's execution out of state, but the federal authorities insisted on hanging him in Michigan.
To this day, the ghosts of Stephen Simmons and Patrick Fitzpatrick still haunt the state, and there is never any serious talk about bringing the death penalty to Michigan.
Michigan's Death Penalty History by Marietta Jaeger-Lane
Michigan Rogues, Desperados & Cut-Throats by Tom Powers (Friede Publications, 2002).
Recommended reading: A Hanging in Detroit: Stephen Gifford Simmons and the Last Execution Under Michigan Law by David G. Chardoavoyne.