As regular readers are probably aware, I like to seek out crime’s more unusual events and people. There are only so many times a reader wants to see yet another article on Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy, and the already well-known ‘celebrity criminals’, after all.
So, with that in mind, today we’re going to look at Martha Place. Her crime wasn’t especially notable, except in the fact that no murder is something to be blithely written off as just another unfortunate event, but her own end was exceptional. Martha Place was the first woman in history to take a seat in Old Sparky, thereby booking herself a singular spot in criminal history.
Now, Martha wasn’t what you’d call a ‘people person.’ In fact, she was well known as a martinet, especially in how she ran the home she shared with her husband William and Ida, his teenage daughter from his first marriage. William tended to toe the line, handy for Martha because it was always her way or the highway and usually with no compromise between the two. Ida, however, was a different matter altogether. She was a teenager when Martha killed her, aged only 17. Like most 17-year olds Ida was willful and headstrong, keen to establish her own identity. She was especially keen to live her own life in her own way, causing regular conflict with Martha.
Ida had never accepted Martha as an authority figure to be respected and obeyed. Martha was William Place’s second wife, who he’d married not much more than a year after his first wife, Ida’s biological mother, had died of illness. Ida wasn’t the only one who disliked Martha and her martinet attitude. William Place’s relatives had shunned Martha right from the start which did little to improve the often combative and always tense atmosphere prevalent in the Place household. The more Martha cracked down, the more Ida rebelled and, the more Ida rebelled, the more Martha tried to break the will of what she saw as an insolent, uppity brat who deserved and needed to be cut down to size one way or another. The two women were constantly at daggers drawn which made life miserable for William, caught as he was between his second wife and his only daughter. This could not be called a happy family.
It was about to get an great deal unhappier.
By the day of the murder, relations between Martha and Ida had finally passed breaking point and descended into mutual hatred. Months of tit-for-tat behaviour had broken any chance of a peaceful resolution their feud. Unfortunately for Ida, William and ultimately herself, Martha had decided to resolve the family feud. Permanently.
On February 7, 1898 Martha struck. She attacked Ida in her bedroom. Ida never saw it coming as Martha threw phenol in her face and eyes, blinding and disfiguring her. That not being enough to kill her, Martha then suffocated Ida and went downstairs to find her husband, after having visited the backyard and picking up a large ax normally used for chopping firewood. As William later testified, she attacked him from behind with every intention of hacking him to death. She failed. William survived her frenzied assault and his cries alerted neighbours who were well-used to sounds of conflict coming from the Place household. They in turn alerted the police who smashed down the door only to find that Martha, believing that she’d successfully killed both her husband and her stepdaughter, had turned on the gas in an effort to take her own life. She failed in that as well, leaving her facing charges of attempting to murder her husband and the capital murder of Ida. The brutality of Ida’s death, Ida having been blinded, disfigured and finally suffocated, coupled with her being only 17 years old, inspired revulsion among the jury. Their lack of sympathy wasn’t mitigated by Martha adopting a cold, indifferent demeanor throughout the trial, a demeanor suggesting that she’d acted perfectly within her rights to commit the crime and virtually asking judge and jury who they were to interfere in Martha’s personal conduct.
The outcome of the trial was virtually a foregone conclusion. William Place testified as to Martha’s attempt on his life and inspired immense sympathy for the brutal, callous way in which he had lost his only daughter. His testimony as to the constant feuding between his wife and daughter was compelling, his pain at losing his only daughter was palpable, his desire to see his wife pay in full for the crime was restrained and reasoned. All in all, William Place impressed everybody as a man who had endured immense suffering, but was seeking justice rather than vengeance. He was to have his wish.
The jury deliberated for only three hours before delivering their verdict. Their verdict was ‘Guilty as charged, with no recommendation for mercy.’ They had virtually unlocked the Death House door for the first woman ever to be electrocuted. On June 12, 1898 Judge Hurd pronounced the then-mandatory sentence in New York State, death by electrocution at Sing Sing Prison in upstate New York.
Old Sparky was then a relatively new method and the very first electrocution, that of William Kemmler at Auburn in August, 1890, had been an appallingly botched affair, so botched that electrical mastermind George Westinghouse bluntly commented that the executioners would have done better with an ax. Martha already had and, by bitter irony, was going to ride the lightning for doing exactly that. She was transported to the dreaded ‘Death House’ at Sing Sing under heavy guard while the customary legal issues were resolved.
An interesting part of her case comes in the protests against her execution or, to be exact, the intended method. New York had performed many electrocutions since Kemmler’s and was slowly managing to refine the process into something resembling a professionally-performed execution. The press and public, however, fiercely disputed the right of New York State to deliver the same punishment on Martha purely because she was a woman. The courts and the State Governor, future President Theodore Roosevelt, didn’t see it that way and that sealed Martha’s doom.
As Roosevelt himself put it:
‘The only case of capital punishment which has occurred since the beginning of my term as Governor was for wife murder, and I refused to consider the appeals then made to me after I became convinced that the man had really done the deed and was sane.’
‘In that case, a woman was killed by a man; in this case, a woman was killed by another woman. The law makes no distinction as to sex in such a crime. This murder was one of peculiar deliberation and atrocity. I decline to interfere with the course of the law…’
With all hope now exhausted, the grim ritual of preparing Martha for her execution began. This process had become almost standard for male prisoners, but was slightly more complicated when it came to executing a woman. Female matrons had to be employed to take care of her needs while on Death Row, there were concerns about the technical side of things as well. For instance, how would a female body respond to the same standard voltage as a male prisoner? Nobody knew and everybody involved feared that Martha Place might suffer the same horrors as William Kemmler. In the end, she didn’t. At 10:57pm on March 20, 1899, Martha walked the dreaded ‘Last Mile’ from her cell to the death chamber. The stocking on her right leg was slit to ensure the leg electrode made a clean contact. As a concession to her gender, her hair had been expertly coiffed so the shaved patch for the head electrode was as unobtrusive as possible. At precisely 11pm she entered the death chamber, sat quietly in the chair and waited while the straps and electrodes were applied. All was quiet, all was ready for history’s first female electrocution. Martha herself said nothing as she was prepared for death.
At 11:01pm criminal history was made. ‘State Electrician’ Edwin Davis set his controls and threw the switch. 2000 volts seared through Martha’s body, locking every muscle and filling the chamber with the odours of scorched hair and burnt flesh. At 11:03pm it was all over. Martha Place was dead, the law had taken its course and history had been made.