The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution says you cannot be tried twice for the same crime. But apparently, you can be hanged twice, and it happened to Antonio Romezzo here in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In addition to being the last man hanged in Lancaster County, Romezzo is likely the reason why all executions are now conducted at state prisons.
Overview of the Murder
Romezzo’s death sentence resulted from his murder of Tony Serafino nearly two years earlier. The two men, along with several others, lived in a hut on the farm of W. W. Grosh outside of Neffsville. Their employer, Fogel & Company of Altoona, was constructing a new state road between Neffsville and East Petersburg.
On June 6, 1910, Romezzo complained of feeling ill and stayed behind in his bunk. Serfino, who ran the commissary and was the only other man in camp, busied himself preparing food for the workers. When the men returned for the noon meal, they made a horrible discovery. Serafino was found dead in his bunk, struck in the head with an axe.
Serafino was rumored to carry a large amount of money in his belt. After his death, both Romezzo and the belt were gone.
It was not until the following year, in July 1911, that Romezzo was taken into custody by police. He was found guilty of “murder in the first degree” on January 3, 1912, with the judge declaring that “Antonio Romezzo should be hanged by the neck until dead.”
The Science of Capital Punishment
What you might not realize is that hanging a man is a kind of science. You take the man’s height and weight, which determines how far the drop should be, with the goal of painlessly snapping his neck. If the rope is too short, he is slowly strangled to death. Too long, and his head pops off like a dandelion. Neither are desirable outcomes.
Dead Man Walking
On the morning of May 23, 1912, Tony was walked to the gallows 40 pounds heavier than when he entered prison. Prison food must have agreed with him.
Despite the severity of the situation, Romezzo refused to believe that his death was imminent. He laughed and joked with prison officials insisting the entire charade was part of an elaborate scheme to scare him into a confession for a crime about which he knew nothing. Not until he stood squarely on the scaffold with the rope adjusted over the black cap did he realize he would die.
At 10:04 am, the signal was given, and the level was pulled. Romezzo fell through the trap door.
However, instead of snapping his neck, the rope broke. Tony fell to the ground with a thud knocking him unconscious. It was likely not the man’s weight (only 204 pounds) that had broken the rope but overuse. County officials had elected to make the noose from a used rope.
So much for Lancaster frugality.
The sight was gruesome. A woman fainted. A man threw up. Eyewitnesses reported that Tony made a horrible wheezing noise.
The attending doctor cut the rope from Romezzo’s neck while one of the guards ran to find a new rope. Others tried to get Tony to his feet but found that his injuries prevented him from standing. Guards found a wooden board and lashed the half-strangled man to it.
At 10:20 am—16 minutes after the first attempt—the County officials tried again. This time the rope held, and according to The Lititz Express, Romezzo “died slowly of strangulation.”
Newspapers across the state reported the horror of the botched execution.
The following day the state legislature voted to end the practice of death by hanging and adopted electrocution. They also moved all executions to state prisons after Lancaster’s botched attempt.
Never Miss a New Post
You can own beautiful reproduction maps of the City of Lancaster from 1864 through 1899.
Hang ’em High! The macabre history of public hangings in Lancaster
Almost as soon as people started living in Pennsylvania, we started executing them. Lancaster’s first hanging was in 1759. Over the next 153 years, the county hung another 29 people until they botched one in 1912. Click here to read the macabre history of public hangings in Lancaster.
1864 Map of the City of Lancaster, Pennsylvania$21.99 – $25.99
Meet ‘Devil Dave’ Miller: The Colorful Sheriff of Lancaster County
One of the expectations for the local sheriff is that he put people in jail, not help them escape. Nevertheless, that’s precisely what Sheriff “Devil Dave” Miller did in 1835 when he helped three prisoners break out of the county jail. Find out why when you click the link.
1875 lithograph of the Lancaster County Courthouse$27.99 – $29.99
Sehner-Ellicott-von Hess House: Home to the surveyor who helped define America
Today, 123 North Prince Street houses the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County, but in the early 1800s, America’s best and brightest mathematician and surveyor, Andrew Ellicott, lived here. Click the link to learn more.
- Lancaster History Archive Images of Antonio Romezzo
- Lancaster Intelligencer: Wednesday, January 03, 1912
- The Semi-Weekly New Era: 25 May 1912, Sat
- The Lancaster Examiner: 25 May 1912, Sat · Page 7
- Lancaster New Era: 23 May 1912, Thu · Page 1
- The last man executed in a Lancaster county prison was hanged twice [The Scribbler]