The 1830 Execution That Helped Michigan Eliminate the Death Penalty
From 1683 – 1707, when Michigan was under French jurisdiction, four people were executed for their crimes.
When Michigan was under British jurisdiction, six executions by hanging took place between 1763 – 1777.
Under U.S. jurisdiction, six more executions were carried out between 1819 – 1836. Finally, Michigan gained statehood in 1837. Michigan eliminated Capital Punishment in 1847.
One of the executions that caused the most stir was the 1830 extermination of Stephen Simmons, a Detroit saloon owner. One night he came home drunk and tried to coax his wife into getting drunk as well. He woke her from a sound sleep, and naturally she refused, wanting to go back to sleep. This didn’t set well with Stephen, and he slugged her in the stomach so hard, that she died not long afterward.
After a quickie trial, with witness testimony from his daughters, Simmons was sentenced to hang. A gallows was constructed at the corner of Farmer Street & Gratiot Avenue (see location photos below). These were the days when a hanging became a family event: seats were made for an audience, vendors set up souvenirs & food for sale, and music was provided for spectators’ entertainment until and after the hanging. Parents brought their children to witness the event, in hopes to dissuade them from a life of crime...and because a hanging was billed as a family event
When asked for last words, Simmons quoted a church 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?”
Stephen Gifford Simmons was the last to be executed under Michigan law.
The combination of the cavalier attitude of the street vendors, party-goers, and executioners along with the harsh reality of seeing a person die by hanging, choking, and a broken neck proved to be too much for some of the attendees. They didn’t realize what a horrific display it would be. This sparked a movement to abolish the death penalty in the Michigan territory, which finally occurred in 1847.
In 1938, Anthony Chebatoris became the last person to be executed in Michigan. Even though Michigan got rid of Capital Punishment in 1847, Chebatoris was executed by the U.S. government for the federal crime of bank robbery, going beyond Michigan jurisdiction. Read all about that historic event HERE.
In 1963, the death penalty was banned in Michigan.