New Hampshire politicians have been debating the death penalty for decades, but the state hasn’t actually put anyone to death since the Great Depression.
The last man executed? That was Howard Long of Alton, N.H. (and previously of Belmont, Mass.), who was convicted of sexually assaulting and murdering a 10-year-old boy two years earlier.
The awful case has been on the minds of some New Hampshire politicians in recent weeks as the state Legislature debated repealing the death penalty. The final vote came Thursday, when the state Senate overrode a gubernatorial veto, making New Hampshire the 21st state to abolish capital punishment.
Long, a former storekeeper described in Globe headlines as a “sex slayer,” was hanged just after midnight on July 14, 1939, in a converted storeroom at the state prison — a seven-minute process described in gruesome detail in the newspaper. The next day, the paper noted, the only people attending his burial were Manchester cemetery workers.
Even then, death sentences were rare in New Hampshire. Before Long’s death, the most recent execution in the state was in 1918. But if there was ambivalence about the death penalty in Long’s era, it wasn’t apparent in the political talk of the day. In June 1939, when Long made one final appeal for clemency, the governor and Executive Council unanimously rejected his plea. Given the harsh details of Long’s crime, the governor said, there was no reason for mercy.
Indeed, Long’s crime was brutal. As the Globe reported: “The Laconia boy’s head was crushed by an automobile jack on Sept. 10, 1937. His body was found in Gilford after a widespread search, and Long confessed striking the boy when he resisted his advances.”
At the time of the crime, Long had been on parole from the Bridgewater, Mass., “state farm,” where he’d been committed for attacking children.
At trial, his lawyer tried unsuccessfully to convince jurors his client was insane. And after he was found guilty, it was just 18 months before his execution.
“Long passed a lonely life in the New Hampshire State Prison in the last 18 months,” the paper wrote, “and the final act of his earthly career stamped him as one who went to his grave with no one to mourn his passing. The process of burial took scarcely more than 15 minutes.”
If Long had more to say — an explanation for his attack, an apology — it was lost to history. The day before his execution, the Globe reported that Long had quietly been working on a memoir — but that a priest had convinced him to destroy the writings just before he was hanged.
“He finally realized,” the Rev. George F. Donnolly noted, “it would have done no one any good to have them read after his death.”
Felice Belman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.