Why Nobody Laughed at Smiley’s Hanging

You are cordially invited to a hanging . . .

Ah, research. Don’t you just love it?  It takes us to all sort of places we never expected to go. Recently while researching nineteenth century wedding invitations I came across an invitation to a hanging.
It surprised me to learn that written invitations for neck-tie parties were not all that unusual.  When nineteenth century hangings went from being public spectacles to private affairs, the burden of inviting law enforcement officers, jurors and other public figures to the proceedings was the sheriff’s responsibility. What better way to spread the word than to send out printed cards?
These invitations were valued and any community leader not on the receiving end took great offense.
For the most part, respectful fonts and paper were employed for the macabre task. Though most invitations were hand-written, a surprising number were engraved.
Some went over the line in poor taste, as much as Sheriff Wattron of Navajo County who had the task of announcing the hanging of one George Smiley for murder. Here’s a copy of the actual invitation:


Somehow the invitation got into the hands of a journalist who saw that it was printed and newspaper across the country and abroad printed the story. Not only did the lawman use paper with a bright gold border, his tacky choice of words stirred a controversy that reached the White House. President McKinley was so incensed by what he read he issued a thirty day stay of execution.
The Governor of Arizona was especially incensed at all the negative press. He released the following statement:
“The Sheriff of Navajo County, whose duty it is to execute the condemned and bring about the just expiation of an awful crime, has seen fit to publicly advertise and issue cards of invitation to the execution of the condemned, in unseemly and flippant language, and in terms which have brought reproach upon the good name of this Territory.”
Bending under the pressure Sheriff Wattron rewrote the invitation and was careful to include a respectful black border. However, he showed his displeasure by mailing the invitations too late for the governor and other critics to attend.
The second invitation was a vast improvement over the first, but somehow you get the feeling that it was written under protest.
“With feelings of profound sorrow and regret, I hereby invite you to attend and witness the private, decent and humane execution of a human being; name, George Smiley, crime, murder. You are expected to deport yourself in a respectful manner and any “flippant” and “unseemly” language on your part will not be allowed.”

So now you know why nobody laughed when Smiley died.


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20 thoughts on “Why Nobody Laughed at Smiley’s Hanging”

  1. Such a — dare I say — fun post, Margaret. I guess I have a flippant streak, because I found the sheriff’s first invitation hysterical. I guess it wouldn’t be very kind for any of poor Smiley’s relatives to have seen such a card, but I find myself siding with the lawman on this one.

    What an interesting research nugget to uncover!

  2. Hi Karen, sometimes I worry about my sense of humor. I found the first invitation hysterical, too. I thought the idea of sending engraved invitations to a hanging too, too funny.

  3. I always thought it was so weird that people would watch hangings. I know there wasn’t that much entertainment in day but come on. it makes it even weirder now that I know about invitations.

  4. Hi Colleen, thank you for stopping by. Some people were required to watch a hanging by law. I think the same is true today for state executions. I sure wouldn’t have wanted to watch.

  5. Hi Margaret and ladies, I would never want to witness an execution at all if I could. The positive of a public execution people were more likely to avoid committing such a horrible crime if they see the consequences first hand. Even though when things such as a hanging is made a joke probably not so much. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Margaret: What a wonderful glimpse into a “grave” event. I loved both the original gold-edged invite and the revision. Both reveal so much about the period, the town, and the sheriff himself. Thanks for sharing. Makes me itch to work something like this into a story…

  7. ,I have never understood the “entertainment value” of public executions. I am afraid I have to agree with the governor’s assessment and response. That being said, the sheriff’s invitation does display rather good morbid humor. He must have been a bit of a character considering his jab at the Governor in his second invitation. I just feel sorry for poor Smiley having to hang around for another month waiting for his hanging. Who knows whether he appreciated the reprieve or just wanted to get it over with.

    I am waiting to see what you ladies do with this bit of information in your books.

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