On February 14, 1873, the sheriff of upstate New York’s Erie County—known to friends as “Big Steve”—fulfilled what he believed to be his duty to follow the criminal-justice process through to its end, notwithstanding his deputy’s offer to take his place. Years earlier, he had paid someone to substitute for him in the Civil War; he never again wanted the moral burden of having bought someone to fulfill a civic obligation in his stead. So, the sheriff personally acted as the hangman in the execution of the Buffalo saloon owner John Gaffney, a twenty-nine-year-old husband and father, who was convicted of killing a man in a drunken rage after a bad hand of cards. It did not go well; Gaffney took twenty-two minutes to die at the hand of his amateur hangman. In little more than a decade, Big Steve, better known as Steven Grover Cleveland, was the president of the United States. As with...


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