In 1905, Mary Rogers faced the hangman’s noose for murdering her husband. There was virtually no doubt of her guilt. But as her execution approached, Mary put the state of Vermont at the center of the debate of capital punishment at the turn of the century.
Mary Rogers grew up in Hoosick Falls, N.Y. Friends described her as an impulsive, emotional, nervous and excitable young girl. She made herself stand out wearing ribbons and bows in her hair and on her clothes, and she was teased by classmates as “the mope.”
Far from silenced, she reveled in provoking her classmates’ responses and seemed to relish her wild and unpredictable image.
Her home life was unpleasant. Her father Charles Bennett and mother Johanna were both drunks. Her father was abusive and tried twice to kill her. Shortly after she was born, Mary’s father had to be pulled off her as he tried to smother her. Later, when she was older, he nearly succeeded in poisoning her with Laudanum.
Despite her unusual behavior, or perhaps because of it, Mary attracted a suitor – Marcus Rogers, a Hoosick Falls farm laborer more than 10 years older than she. Mary and Marcus married when she was 15 in 1898, and moved to Shaftsbury, Vermont.
In 1901, Mary had a baby. But the child did not live long. Mary claimed that she dropped the baby and he hit his head, causing his death. No questions were asked, but her family believed she had killed the child.
During the separation, Mary very publicly dated and slept with several men, including Morris Knapp, and the brothers Levi and Leon Perham. Morris was a young man and a laborer from an established local family. They talked of marriage. Mary concluded she needed to improve her situation, and she hatched a plan to do just that.
Mary asked Levi Perham to help her kill Marcus, but he refused. Younger brother Leon, still a teen himself, agreed to help.
The Perhams’ mother had dismissed the talk of murder as just more of Mary’s outrageous behavior. Mary played on Marcus’ continuing infatuation with her. She invited him to Bennington and took him to a picnic grounds on the Walloomsac River on August 9, 1902. There, she and Leon invited him to play a game. He took a dare see if they could tie his hands so tight he couldn’t get them undone.
Never suspecting what was coming, Marcus agreed. With Marcus’ arms tied, the rest was simple. Mary forced him to breathe chloroform while Leon held him down. In minutes, Marcus was unconscious and together Mary and Leon removed the ropes from his wrists and tossed him into the river where he drowned.
Before they disposed of him, Mary did one last thing. She removed a life insurance policy from Marcus’ pocket. She then attached a forged suicide note to Marcus’ hat and left it by the river.
It wasn’t long before the suicide story began to unravel. Mary’s aggressive pursuit of her husband’s insurance money, conflicting stories about what had happened between her and Marcus and her continuing unusual behavior made Mary a suspect in the death.
At an inquest, Levi told of Mary’s attempt to get him to kill Marcus. Then Leon cracked. He told the whole story. He had received no deal in exchange for his information. Prosecutors decided that because he was slow-witted and under the influence of Mary they would seek only life imprisonment for Leon. For Mary, however, the charge was cold-blooded, calculated murder.
The jury made short work of the case, deciding – to no one’s surprise – that Mary was guilty. What did shock the state, however, was when she was sentenced to hang. Only one woman had ever been hanged in Vermont, and the harshness of the verdict against 19-year-old Mary stunned many.
In the previous 13 years, no one had been actually executed in Vermont. The state legislature had always commuted every death sentence handed down. In December, 1904, however, the legislature voted not to commute Mary’s sentence – to the surprise of many Vermonters.
The governor twice delayed implementing the sentence while appeals were heard, and as 1904 turned to 1905 public support began growing for the governor to commute Mary’s sentence.
The history of her odd behavior and mental illness in her family suggested she was mentally incompetent and the idea of executing a young woman revolted many people. From around the country support for Mary poured in. Mrs. William Blickensderfer of Stamford, Connecticut contributed funds to hire lawyers and publicize the case.
Meanwhile, Mary was finding more ways to shock and provoke people even behind the walls of the Windsor prison where she was held. Rumors began circulating that she was having sex in the prison in hopes of getting pregnant and forestalling her execution.
An inquiry conducted by the legislature concluded that the prison matron had allowed her to have sex with at least one prisoner, a convicted rapist, and a married prison guard. Mary had the matron “under a spell,” the matron explained.
In November, 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Mary’s final request for a new trial. The execution was set for Dec. 8.
A petition drive in Cincinnati gathered 30,000 signatures, asking that she be shown mercy. The sheriff of Windsor County, who would be called upon to execute Mary, publicly asked the governor to not force his department to carry out the execution. He hired a lawyer to try to persuade the governor to grant clemency and said he would carry out the execution only under protest.
The family of Admiral Charles Edgar Clark joined the fray, arguing that it was a disgrace to execute a woman. The Bradford-born admiral was a hero of the Spanish American war; his portrait, a life-size likeness, hung in the statehouse. His family, with the admiral’s support, demanded that his portrait be turned to face the wall in shame if his home state went through with the execution.
And an anonymous, but apparently serious, offer was made to pay $2,000 to anyone who would take a vial of poison into Mary so that she could kill herself and avoid hanging.
Governor Charles Bell met with Mary’s lawyers to consider her case on the morning of the execution. The governor, who was badgered by reporters about the case while travelling in San Francisco, was fed up with the story.
“The attitude of the people of Vermont has been misrepresented. As a matter of fact, the press of Vermont has little or nothing to say,” the governor said. “The matter is a dead issue. The agitation, which seems not to have died out, is due now, as it has been from start to finish, directly to Mrs. Blickensderfer and to certain newspapers in New York and Boston, which have taken it upon themselves to give her free advertising.”
Following the meeting with Mary’s lawyers on the day of the execution, Bell declined to intervene. “I know of no law that is not as much for a woman as for a man,” he said.
On Dec. 8, Mary’s execution took place. But she would cause one last examination of the practices of capital punishment. The execution was botched. Either because it stretched or was too long, the rope used to hang her did not keep her feet from hitting the ground underneath the gallows.
Accounts of her gruesome end varied. The sheriff’s office would explain that her feet only lightly touched the ground and she bounced back up. Other witnesses said that deputy sheriffs had to haul on the rope to raise Mary back up. Either way, her neck did not break; she strangled to death – a process which took 14 minutes, by some accounts.
The state at first tried to cover up the mistake, but when news of the screw up emerged, Mary’s execution once again fueled the arguments by opponents of the death penalty for years.