By modern standards, colonial justice was severe. Almost as soon as people started living in Pennsylvania, we started executing them. The Commonwealth’s first recorded execution occurred on July 9, 1693, when Derek Johnson was hung for murder.
Until 1912, hanging was the typical penalty for a wide range of crimes, including burglary, piracy, rape, buggery (I’ll let you Google that term), and homicide. Women weren’t immune either, although their sentences were usually commuted to a term of imprisonment.
Between 1729 and 1912, 30 Lancastrians personally greeted the hangman’s noose. John Jones was the first person officially hung in Lancaster on June 6, 1759, for housebreaking/burglary.
Additional people were hung in Lancaster in 1778, while British forces occupied the eastern portion of the state. Because of this, all capital offense trails committed in Philadelphia, Bucks, and Chester County were moved to Lancaster. At least three men were hung here for treason and espionage.
The Legend of John Lechler
In 1821, a convicted murderer, John Lechler, was marched through the streets, escorted by militia companies, two cavalry troops, and the city band. Fifteen thousand people came to witness the hanging.
The legend holds that the unfortunate Lechler was so fond of marching with military units that he led the parade of military escorts with a quick and enthusiastic step on his way to the scaffold.
Until 1834 executions were public events, and 15 Lancastrians, including one woman, greeted eternity at the end of the rope in front of a crowd. It was common for these events to turn into an impromptu holiday, drawing thousands of spectators much like Lechler’s execution had. In most towns, the gallows were erected at the highest point. For Lancaster, that was a 438-foot high area on the western edge of the city called Gallows Hill.
Rumor holds that F&M’s Old Main, built-in 1853 to accommodate the merger between Franklin & Marshall, was built over Gallows Hill. Paranormal activity has even been reported inside the building, including the bell tolling at night by itself. In reality, Gallows Hill is directly west of Old Main inside of Buchanan Park.
Old Eleven Steps
In 1834, Pennsylvania became the first state in the U.S. to outlaw public executions and moved the gallows to county prisons. For Lancaster, that was inside the old jail that once sat in the corner of West King and North Prince. That spot is now home to the Fulton Theatre.
The jail was originally built in 1740 and constructed of sturdy logs. Over the year, numerous additions and repairs were made, which included the installation of a well and pump. But, in 1774, due to frequent escapes and an increasing number of “guests,” an entirely new stone building was built on the same site, including the old workhouse area. This prison had the nickname “Old Eleven Steps” because of the 11 step entrance. Part of the original stone wall remains behind the Fulton Theater on Water Street.
The execution site was again moved in 1853 when the county built the current jail on East King Street near the Reservoir. The building is an almost exact model of old Lancaster Castle in Lancaster, England, with an arched gateway, portcullis, embrasured battlements, and a tremendous medieval watch-tower more than a hundred feet high.
Between 1834 and 1912, another 15 Lancastrians were hung more discreetly inside the walls of the county prison. But that didn’t mean everyone stopped watching. Spectators simply filled the prison yard and gathered on nearby walls and rooftops.
Antonio Romezzo has the dual distinction of being the last man hung in Lancaster County and likely the reason why all executions are now conducted at state prisons.
On the morning of May 23, 1912, Romezzo was walked to the gallows 40 pounds heavier than when he entered prison. At 10:04 am, the level was pulled, and Romezzo fell through the trap door. However, instead of snapping his neck, the rope broke, and Romezzo fell to the ground, unconscious.
Eyewitnesses reported that “a loud, wheezing noise issued from the prostrate man.” The attending doctor cut the rope from Romezzo’s neck while other men found a wooden board to tied the half-strangled man to and a stronger rope. At 10:20 am—16 minutes after the first attempt—the guards tried again. This time the rope held.
The rope had likely broken not from the man’s weight (which was only 204 pounds), but from overuse of the hangman’s noose. Instead of buying a new rope, the county had tried to get one last hanging out of it.
So much for Lancaster frugality.
After Romezzo’s execution in 1912, another eight Lancaster residents were electrocuted by the state. The last was Edward Lester Gibbs on April 23, 1951