'Electrical' Execution of
 'Bat' Shea - 1896




Bringing to a Close One of the
Most Celebrated Criminal Cases

In the History of the State—A Remarkable Funeral.

The wild winds of a keen winter’s day sweep around the gloomy walls of Clinton State prison, Dannemora. The ground is covered deep with snow and as the winds descend from the encircling hills the air is darkened with flying particles that sting the face like the pricks of needles and blind the vision. Nature is in one of her terrible moods and merciless, indeed, is her winter manifestation in this mountain-girdled village of the Adirondacks.

Through the raging storm a party is laboring up-hill from the Chateaugay Railroad depot toward the frowning prison. They have assembled from various parts of the State to witness the most supreme act of the law or of man—for a human life is to be sacrificed, man thereby destroying that which he cannot restore.

Meantime, within the prison, what are the feelings of him whom a little later the law is to deprive of life and to which the witnesses are to attest? For him on this earth there is to be little more of storm or of sunshine. The day, the hour, almost the moment of his death have been determined on, nor will any human influence enter to defer the hour or modify the sentence. He must die! For over a year and a half his mind has been tortured with this thought. His life has been like a flickering fire, now freshened by hope, now blackened by despair. But now hope, despair, anxiety—that painful worm that mercilessly gnaws the heart—are to cease forever; the only thing certain now and certain, immediately, is the tomb. For this he has prepared under spiritual guidance and while nature is wild without; his heart has been softened under the influence of religion and calmly, almost confidently, he awaits the supreme end. The man is Bartholomew Shea, convicted of the murder of Robert Ross, in Troy, and the time Tuesday.



A little before 10 o’clock Tuesday forenoon the 27 witnesses whom the law allows to be present at an electrocution and whom Warden Thayer had invited to the legal tragedy, filed from the hotel into the prison grounds and after passing keeper after keeper were admitted to a reception room on the west side of the building. Here, as their names were called, they passed solemnly into another compartment and thence into the death chamber where they took seats in the western end of the room. Before them as they were seated stood the electric chair of death and back of it the machinery for the transmission of the current. Electric bulbs shone resplendently upon the dramatic scene, so solemn and soon to be so tragic. Amid intense silence Warden Thayer announced what was expected of the witnesses and then State Electrician Davis turned on the current for its final test. On the chair a row of bulbs were fixed to receive the current that Shea would soon feel, and as the current was transmitted the bulbs shone with intense brilliancy. The connection was then broken, the bulbs removed and Warden Thayer disappeared to notify Shea that the last grains in his life-glass were falling.

A moment of intense anxiety, of a nameless dread, ensued and as noiselessly as shadows Warden Thayer and Principal Keeper Edward McKenna entered the death chamber, taking up their positions near Dr. Ransom, the physician in charge and Electrician Davis. Immediately behind came Vicar General J.J. Swift, of Troy, and Rev. Father Belanger, the spiritual advisers of Shea, and between them, though somewhat to the rear walked the condemned man. The rear of the procession was made up of keepers.



It was a solemn moment and a solemn occasion—as trying almost to the spectators as to the doomed man himself. In a low tone the officiating priests read the ritual for the dying, continuing their recitations until Shea was officially pronounced dead. The latter walked firmly to the chair in which he seated himself and throwing back his head gazed at the witnesses as though looking for a familiar face. Rapidly the strapping of the victim and the fitting of the appliances were effected, but just before the adjustment of the helmet Shea looked toward the spectators and toward the little barred window in the western end of the room. It was his last look at light and life! Everything being in readiness, Dr. Ransom notified Electrician Davis to signal for the turning on of the current and almost immediately a voltage of 1,800 passed through Shea’s body. Responsive to the powerful current the body shot upward against the binding straps, which creaked with the force thus suddenly directed against them, but no other sound or movement was manifest. The current was then reduced to 200 volts and the body sank to its original position in the chair. Twice this was repeated and after examination by Dr. Ransom and other physicians Bartholomew Shea was officially pronounced dead. His body was then removed and an autopsy held.

She’s tenacity of life was very great and hence the powerful current used. His death was apparently painless and according to Dr. Ransom life was extinct in less than four seconds. The entire time consumed between the first turning of the current and the official pronouncement of death was one minute and 26 seconds. In every particular the execution was most successful and was absolutely unattended with even a shade of sensationalism.



Shea’s life in prison was a model one. Since he entered the insitution in July, 1894, whether elated by hope or depressed by anxiety and hopelessness he conducted himself uniformly well. He has as a constant visitor Father Belanger, the Catholic priest of the village, who has acted as spiritual solacer on many other sad occasions and who conducts services in the prison chapel the first Sunday of each month. Toward the end he expressed a desire for the presence of Very Rev. J.J. Swift, who had been Shea’s pastor in Troy and who had known him since he was a child. He left behind a letter wherein he maintains his innocence and criticised some of those who testified against him. In it he says that his trial was unfair and brought about by extraordinary means. A second letter he addressed to a friend in Troy requesting him to advise his brother against the dangers of bad company.

Shea was cheerful toward the end and on the eve of his execution smoked cigars and chatted pleasantly. He expressed himself satisfied that the next day would see the end of his earthly career. The only time when the strain was too great to bear was on Saturday when he took his last farewell of his sorrowful mother and sister. For their sakes he bore up in their presence, but when they had gone the inevitable reaction set in and the floodgates of feeling and sorrow were opened.

One of the revelations of the autopsy conducted on his remains was that he was in the initial stages of consumption and that he would not have lived more than a year or two.



Over 10,000 People Turned Out in Sympathy for the Dead.

"Bat" Shea’s funeral was one of the most impressive ever held in Troy and perhaps the largest. There are many people in Troy who believe Shea to have been innocent of the killing of Robert Ross, and there are others in Troy and vicinity who, realizing that the slaying of Ross took place in a free fight in which many participated, believe that the end of justice would have been attained if Shea had been imprisoned for life instead of electrocuted. These reasons had much to do with the remarkable demonstration at the funeral, and perhaps another contributive cause was to make the funeral of Shea as impressive as was that of Robert Ross. Whatever the reason, the funeral was one that will long be remembered.

Immediately after the autopsy in Dannemora the remains of Shea were placed in a handsome quartered oak casket by Undertaker Burns, of Troy, whom Shea himself had designated, and were conveyed to the family home in that city. The casket was enclosed in a rought pine box and at Plattsburg, while this box remained on the platform of the depot of the depot awaiting the 9:10 P.M. train for Troy, it was viewed by hundreds of people. When the train arrived in Troy at 2:30 Wednesday morning an immense concourse of people were assembled to receive the remains. As the door of the car swung open and the box was taken out a subdued cry arose from hundreds of lips—and expression of sympathy for the dead. The weird cry, the heads of the crowd showing like silhouettes in the sputtering electric light, and the tragic rough box formed a scene impressive and solemn. From the depot the remains were transferred to the family residence, at River street, where friends and relatives of the family were in waiting to gaze upon the calm, pale face of the dead.



All day Wednesday people flocked to the Shea home to express their sympathy or satisfy their curiosity. But toward night the throngs deepened and one continuous procession wended its way toward the place and as the people arrived they were directed to enter the front door of the residence, view the remains and then pass out through the rear door. Until midnight a steady stream of people passed thus through the Shea house, many of them shedding tears as they gazed on the body.

Next morning, long before the time appointed for the funeral, people commenced again to flock toward the house of death. Soon the street in the vicinity was blockaded, rendering traffic almost an impossibility, and again policemen were stationed at the place, their duties consisting in preventing an absolute blockade of the thoroughfare. Among those attending the funeral were large crowds of factory girls, whose sympathies very generally have been enlisted in Shea’s behalf since the fatal day in March, 1894. Wednesday these girls raised subscriptions in their various places of employment and fully $600 was expended in buying flowers for the funeral. One of the floral pieces was molded after the chair in which Shea suffered death and bore in letters of immortelles the one word "Innocent." "Rest," "Not Guilty" and "Murdered" were some of the other inscriptions on the numerous floral pieces. It took three wagons to carry the latter, and policemen had to interfere to prevent the curious and the sympathetic from carrying away the flowers piecemeal.


When the funeral procession started from the house for St. Patrick’s Church the streets were densely packed with people, fully 10,000 persons having turned out to witness the solemn sight. In front of the church the street was blockaded and street car traffic was suspended for two hours. The funeral procession was headed with two wagons containing flowers and then came the hearse, followed by a long line of vehicles and thousands of people on foot trudging through the snow. In the church the services were impressive, Vicar General Swift officiating in solemn high mass. During the ceremonies, which lasted two hours, the crowds lined the streets near the church, not only not diminishing in number but steadily growing and heedless of the raging storm. At the termination of the services Father Swift addressed the vast congregation, saying in substance:



"The circumstances of this caser are well-known to a majority of the people here, but I think they demand a few words from me. The remains of our departed brother are brought into the church not for the purpose of doing him special honor. We did not consider him during life as representing the sentiment of the church, and in his latter days he was far from being faithful to the rules of the church and the laws of God. The church was established for the salvation of men. It is a Christian church, established by Christ, and Christian is her name. She tells the relatives of the deceased that they have a right to bring him into the church, in order to have the benefit of prayers for the repose of the soul, when he returns in sincerity and repents of whatever may have been his transgressions or even crimes. He has paid the debt of human justice.

"Whether innocent or guilty of the death which occurred I know not, neither do I believe he knew. I do not want to be misunderstood. I do not know and neither did he. He forgave all for the part they took in the tragedy, as he expected to be forgiven, and his last request was that his life was not one I would advise young Catholics to follow, and all his trouble was due to his failure to remember the instructions of his church. It should be a lesson to young men. We are a law-abiding community. Human justice has been satisfied. Let us unite and pray that eternal justice may be satisfied and that the deceased may find eternal rest."



After the religious services the remains were transferred to the hearse and the spectators struggled among themselves to touch the casket. Slowly, then, the procession proceeded to St. Peter’s Cemetery, 5,000 people joining in the march and some of them at times impeding the progress of the procession. At the open grave a last prayer was said over the remains, the men all uncovering their heads and many of them, with thousands of women, kneeling in the snow to say a last prayer for the soul of Bartholomew Shea.

The bearers whom Shea had designated were Thomas H. Halligan, John Wells, William Otis, J.W. Connolly, Andrew Cleary and John Cain, of Troy, and James Walsh and Terrence Meehan, of New York. At first it had been decided to have held the funeral Friday, and had this been carried out the number present would have been greater, as people from the surrounding towns and from Albany would have poured into Troy.



And the Remarkable Fight That Was Made to Save His Life.

The crime for which Bartholomew Shea, familiarly known as "Bat" Shea, suffered death was the shooting of Rober Ross in Troy, Tuesday, March 6, 1894. The affair grew out of politics and occurred during an election riot. At about the noon hour a crowd of repeaters, among them Shea and John McGough, a pal of Shea and now serving a 20 years’ sentence, appeared at the polling booth of the third district of the Thirteenth Ward. There William and Robert Ross, brothers, were present as watchers, and another brother, John C. Ross, was on the scene. The Rosses and their friends were armed with clubs, a row evidently having been expected owing to a dispute at a caucus a short time before. The row started when one of the Shea gang sought to vote upon another citizen’s name and in a twinkling clubs and revolvers were flourished. Many shots were fired and when the fight closed it was found that Robert Ross had been fatally shot, that his brother, William, and received a bullet in the neck and that Shea and McGough, who fled from the scene, had each been slightly wounded.

On information given to the authorities John H. Boland, who had figured in the fight, was arrested for the murder of Ross, and Shea and McGough were also arrested. The day following the riot a meeting of citizens was held in the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church and a Committee of Safety formed to prosecute the murderer of Ross. Muarch 14 the coroner’s jury held its first session and a week later concluded its labors, discharging Boland from custody and fixing the crime on Shea. For the trial of the case and extraordinarly term of court was ordered by Gov. Flower and Hon. Parcon C. Williams was designated to preside. George Raines, of Rochester, was appointed as an aide to Assistant District Attorney Fagan. Shea had for counsel John T. Norton, of Troy, and Galen R. [text missing]. . . . . tion of the A.P.A. figuring in it to a great extent. It began May 28, 1894, and not until 244 venire men had been examined were the necessary 12 jurors selected. Thirty-seven days later, or on July 4, the jury returned a verdict of guilty against Shea and July 10 Justice Williams sentenced him to be electrocuted during the week beginning August 21.



And then began a remarkable fight to save Shea’s life. The case was taken to the Court of Appeals and after almost a year’s delay the verdict of the inferior court was sustained and Shea was brought from Dannemora to Troy and again sentenced to death. Justice Edwards pronounced the sentence and the penalty was to be paid during Christmas week, 1895. A petition was got up and was very generally signed praying Gov. Morton to spare Shea’s life until after the holidays, and responsive to this the Governor granted a respite until January 7, 1896.

Meantime another petition had been circulated asking the Governor to commute Shea’s sentence to imprisonment for life. It was extensively signed and considerable pressure was brought to bear to induce signatures. The Governor, however, refused to be influenced by it. And then came that which was most unexpected of all—a confession by John McGough that he and not Shea had shot Robert Ross. McGough had been placed on trial immediately after that of Shea and had been found guilty and sentenced to Dannemora prison for 20 years for shooting William Ross. His confession created a genuine sensation and to allow of a critical examination into it the Governor . . . Shea until . . . February 4. Meantime Shea’s counsel applied to Judge Mayham for



on the ground of newly discovered evidence and arguments for and against were heard at Schoharie, Norton & Hitt pleading for the motion and Fagan & Raines opposing it. The papers submitted were voluminous and to allow Judge Mayham ample time to examine them a further respite was granted Shea until February 11—Tuesday last. Judge Mayham denied the motion last week Friday and the last hope of Shea had fallen to the ground. His counsel, however, made a still further effort Monday, Mr. Hitt calling upon the Governor and Mr. Norton seeking an appeal form the decision of Judge Mayham. Both efforts to obtain interference with the carrying out of the sentence failed, and Tuesday the curtain dropped upon one of the most sensational cases in the criminal history of the State.

In this connection, however, it is interesting to note that on the day of Shea’s execution McGough, after hearing that the end had come, confirmed his first confession, reiterating that he and not Shea was the slayer of Robert Ross.


This was a contemporary newspaper account, believed to be from Albany, New York.