An 1899 portrait of Nelson Dingley Jr. of Lewiston by artist D.D. Coombs. Morphy Auctions

On June 8, 1875, Gov. Nelson Dingley Jr. of Lewiston and his Executive Council gathered for their monthly meeting, taking no action on requests for leniency for convicted killers Louis Wagner and John Gordon.

The Kennebec Journal said the next day that by doing nothing “the last hope has departed” for both and “these miserable men will suffer the full penalty of law in the State Prison yard at Thomaston on Friday, the 25th day of June, between the hours of 11 and 12 o’clock in the forenoon.”

Four days later, Dingley, the owner of the Lewiston Evening Journal, signed a similar death warrant for James M. “Jim” Lowell as well, requiring his execution on July 30.

First, though, the state had to hang Wagner and Gordon.

Wagner, a German immigrant, had been found guilty of slaying two sisters on Smuttynose Island with an axe in 1873. A third sister, badly hurt, managed to hide until rescuers came.

A jury convicted Gordon of burning a farmhouse that same year after using an axe to kill three of its inhabitants, his brother, sister-in-law and a baby girl. A boy managed to escape.


Both men insisted on their innocence to the end.

By the appointed day for their death, on July 25, gallows were set up “in as dreary a place as can be imagined, being nearly 25 feet below the surface of the ground” in “a deep and somewhat gloomy pit” on the eastern side of the prison yard, as Edward Page Mitchell, the Lewiston paper’s reporter noted.

It had once been a limestone quarry where convicts doing hard labor spent their days. No longer in use, the hole remained, “huger and bleaker” than similar quarries in the area. In the northwestern corner of the pit, sheltered on three sides by the prison walls and workshops, stood the gallows.

Lewiston Evening Journal reporter Edward Page Mitchell, a recent Bowdoin College graduate, began a long, storied career in journalism by covering the Lowell trial in Auburn. Memoirs of an Editor: Fifty Years of American Journalism

Though the trap mechanism, cross beam and pulleys had been used before to hang Abraham Cox and Peter Williams in Auburn in 1858 and two convicted killers at the prison, Francis Spencer and Clifton Harris, the rest of the gallows were newly made. It consisted of a wooden platform with rails, elevated on corner posts, looking a bit like a bandstand common in many little Maine towns. In the center, the drop consisted of a thick plank on hinges set to fall away when the pressure of someone’s foot moved a lever that worked an iron bolt that held the board level with the floor. A weight and pulley made “the falling of the trap immediate and certain” and prevented it from swinging back onto the heads of the men who had fallen through, nooses around their necks, the paper said. The ropes were adjusted to allow a fall of about seven feet.

That morning, Gordon tried to cheat the hangman. Having secured a knife somehow, he stabbed himself in the chest. Before long, he lay bleeding and unconscious.

Even so, four men carried him, naked from the waist up and covered with blood, to the gallows, Mitchell recorded in horror.


“Poor Gordon, poor Gordon, you are most gone!” Wagner called out when he saw the man.

The guard lay Gordon on the trap, then lifted him onto a box, holding him upright so he wouldn’t fall over.

“Every few seconds, he uttered deep groans,” the Lewiston paper said. Finally, Gordon’s pants slipped down and exposed a deep gash on his leg, where he’d apparently also sought to slice his femoral artery, with at least some success.

A broadside issued shortly after the hanging of John Gordon and Louis Wagner. Private collection

A Portland Daily Press reporter described the gory scene: “Those who saw the miserable wretch Gordon upon that trap will always remember it. That ghastly face with the bright sun showing up its hideousness, the deep groans, the bloody limp form held up by the officers, made up a picture of such utter horror and despair as is rarely seen even in the fiercest conflicts of war.”

Black caps were lowered over both men’s heads, though Gordon was utterly unconscious.

Then Rockland County Sheriff John Torrey sprung the trap and both men fell suddenly, quietly swinging as the ropes twisted and untwisted.


Mitchell, who would one day become the top editor at the New York Sun, said the scene was enough to “appall the stoutest heart.”

The gory demise of Gordon shocked many in Maine, causing a number of publications and religious groups to demand an end to the death penalty.

The tumult caused Dingley’s Executive Board on July 6, 1875, to vote 4-3 to commute Lowell’s sentence to life in prison.

With that, Lowell no longer faced the gallows.

Mandeville Treat Ludden

In January 1876, the state House narrowly agreed 75-68 to abolish capital punishment and the state Senate went along, with less hesitation, on an 18-11 vote.

Though Maine briefly restored executions in the 1880s, hanging three more men before abandoning the practice for good, Lowell’s sentence had already been changed to life behind bars, one of 20 convicted killers held at the time in the State Prison.


Despite the commutation of his sentence, the death penalty sentence imposed on him was still enough for the law to declare that Lowell, though still alive, was “civilly dead.”

His former attorney, Mandeville Ludden, who had been orphaned himself at age 5, had been appointed the guardian of Lowell’s son, William A. “Willie” Lowell. It is not clear what that meant for the boy’s relationship with his mother in Massachusetts.

In any case, in 1877, Ludden got a probate judge in Androscoggin County to authorize him to sell the whole of the prisoner’s property on the boy’s behalf. Details of the proceeding don’t appear to exist.

This is the 23rd chapter of a serial that will run every Sunday for much of the year. Follow the mystery here.

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