AUBURN — The hero of Little Round Top, Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who achieved glory on the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg, had less luck in the rough-and-tumble of politics.

Though he served four one-year terms as Maine’s governor, his bid for one of the Pine Tree State’s two Senate seats fell short, his road to Washington closed for good.

Joshua Chamberlain, Civil War hero, Maine governor and president of Bowdoin College, may have gone further in politics if he hadn’t clashed with leaders of his own party over the fate of an Auburn killer.

And the roots of that failure lie in part in his response to a sickening 1867 murder in a neat, little white cottage at Youngs Corner, a hamlet in Auburn where Hotel Road and Summer Street come together between Lake Auburn and Taylor Pond.

It’s a story about the crime, of course, but also about race, power and politics.

A WINTER NIGHT IN WEST AUBURN

Three days after a big snowstorm buried the region in January 1867, Isaac Libby, a shoemaker, trudged through the drifts to retrieve some shoes from two elderly neighbors he paid to do stitching.

It was growing late on a Saturday when he arrived and he immediately noticed nobody had been in or out of the little house occupied by Susannah Kinsley, 64, and Polly Caswell, 67. It didn’t worry him at first, but then he realized there wasn’t any smoke rising from the chimney.

Concerned, he knocked on the nearby door of Otis Keith and the two men together went to check on the women.

What they found, the Lewiston Evening Journal said, “almost made their blood freeze in their veins.”

First they discovered Kinsley in a pool of blood, a comforter ripped apart at her side so that feathers covered the site of “a terrible struggle for life.”

Nearby they saw Caswell’s bloody, battered body.

“A more horrible scene than what was presented cannot be imagined,” a Journal reporter who witnessed it recounted.

By Sunday, authorities concluded the women had been murdered and raped shortly before the blizzard hit on Jan. 16.

TRACKING DOWN A KILLER

After first collaring a couple of hapless losers who were ultimately released, officials tracked down 19-year-old Clifton Harris two weeks into their manhunt.

A detective from New York, brought in by Attorney General William Frye, poked around enough to become suspicious of Harris, a short, slim man routinely referred to in print as “the Negro.”

Meanwhile, a sheriff’s deputy had arrested Harris because he noticed suspicious stains on his clothing that might have come from blood.

After a few days of intensive questioning, the prisoner began crying.

“I’ll tell you all about it,” Harris told his two pursuers.

Harris, born in Virginia and possibly a slave as a child, proceeded to tell how he and a 41-year-old white laborer, Luther Verrill, had gone to the house in search of rumored $1,500 hidden there, which, it turned out, actually existed in a little trunk in a closet. The killers couldn’t find it.

Both men were held for murder.

FACING THE GALLOWS

In a trial that captured the attention of the nation in June 1867, Harris readily admitted his guilt. Verrill, on the other hand, pleaded not guilty.

Clifton Harris, who was hanged in 1869 after his conviction for a murder in Auburn two years earlier, became a nationally known figure as his fate turned into a political spat between the leading figures in Maine.

Harris blamed whiskey for his participation and insisted that Verrill planned the crime.

The pair had known each other for a year, played cards, hung out and seemed to be friends.

But Verrill said that Harris alone committed the crime.

Frye, handling the case for the state, made a convincing argument that Verrill couldn’t be trusted.

Both men were found guilty and sentenced to death.

Then Harris, in a muddled and wildly inconsistent way, changed his story. He said Verrill wasn’t there after all — though he also said just the opposite as he described the new version to a Journal reporter.

In any case, the change in his story delivered a new trial for Verrill, who wound up a free man despite a clear implication that he was involved, at the very least, in a conspiracy to steal the women’s money.

That left Harris alone to face the hangman.

CHAMBERLAIN TAKES ACTION

At the time, it didn’t seem likely that the execution would ever happen.

Maine had sent only one man to the gallows in the previous three decades, a convict who struck down the warden of the state prison in Thomaston.

The rest of the men who had been sentenced to hang watched years pass on death row as the state dallied, uncertain about whether to follow through on the death penalty that remained on its books.

Since 1837, the state law had left it to the governor to sign death warrants for murderers who had been held in prison for more than a year — enough time to allow for appeals. But with the sole exception of Francis Spencer, the warden slayer, no governor had moved ahead with their executions.

For Chamberlain, governor since the end of the Civil War, it was an intolerable situation.

In November 1867, Chamberlain wrote to the prison warden to let him know “it is my intention to take the responsibility of disposing of the cases which come under my jurisdiction, and not to shirk my duty and increase the embarrassments of my successors.”

Chamberlain told the Legislature in January 1868 that he would either commute the sentences to life in prison or follow through with the hangings.

Harris, by law, had until July of that year to live during his appeal period. After that, however, all that stood between him and eternity was Chamberlain’s signature.

Thomas Brackett Reed, a future speaker of the U.S. House, sought to remedy the problem by convincing the Legislature to abolish the death penalty in Maine. But lawmakers voted 2-1 against Reed’s bill.

Chamberlain began reviewing the cases of death row inmates. He wound up issuing sentence commutations to all of them, with a single exception: Harris.

DEBATE OVER THE FATE OF HARRIS

In a strange twist, a champion arose for Harris: the man who prosecuted him.

Frye, the attorney general, used the opportunity of his annual report in 1868 to urge leniency for Harris.

“I do not think that justice requires the execution of Harris,” Frye wrote, in part because the criminal had provided evidence to the state.

Frye compared Harris to George Knight of Poland, whose sentence the governor commuted. Knight had been “born in New England, educated in our schools, a man intelligent, successful in business, in the full maturity of his powers” who had slit the throat of his wife after plotting the details of the crime.

Harris, on the other hand, was “born on a Southern plantation, educated only as to his brutal instincts, compelled into ignorance and degradation and a subservience to a white man by force of law itself,” Frye wrote.

A comparison of the two cases, he said, “does not commend itself to my sense of justice.”

Chamberlain responded in early January 1869 by signing the death warrant for Harris.

He argued that Knight ought to have been hanged after his 1856 conviction, but he commuted the man’s sentence anyway because the convict proclaimed his innocence.

Harris, the governor added, admitted his guilt.

In a written statement issued later, the governor said that Frye could have argued for a lesser sentence for Harris at the trial in Auburn. He hadn’t.

He also pointed to the varying stories that Harris told as a reason to show no mercy.

Chamberlain said that by implicating Verrill and then reversing himself, Harris had either endeavored to add another innocent to the death toll or sought to shield the guilty from justice “and crowning the whole with perjury.”

He also scoffed at Frye’s bid for sympathy due to Harris’ background, calling it “a novelty in jurisprudence” to cite previous “bad character” as a reason to mitigate a sentence.

In a speech to the Legislature that winter, while Harris waited for his March 12 execution date, Chamberlain defended the death penalty.

“It is urged that we be merciful,” he said. “But to whom? I ask. To the violator of all sanctities, the pitiless despoiler of the peace and good order of society, or to the innocent, the good, the peaceful and well-doing, who rely on the protection of the state?”

In a final bid to save Harris, the House voted just a week before the hanging date on a proposal that would have commuted his sentence.

It went down to defeat 95-45.

HARRIS HANGED

The New York Times reported that Harris expected a reprieve that never came.

After a sound sleep on a bed of straw at the Thomaston penitentiary, the paper reported, Harris ate a hearty steak breakfast.

Shortly before noon, wearing a white suit and a black cap, the prisoner was led to a scaffold. They tied his arms and legs before putting a noose around his neck.

With his last words, he declared that everything he’d initially said about Verrill was true.

The gallows trap door sprung open and Harris plummeted 8 feet, swinging to-and-fro at least a couple of minutes as he strangled to death, reporters witnessed.

Of the dozen men convicted of murder during Chamberlain’s tenure as governor, he was the only one executed. Along with Spencer, he was the only person Maine sent to the gallows between 1837 and 1875.

POLITICS AND PERSONALITIES

The execution of Harris didn’t stop the debate over his fate or alleviate the hard feelings spurred by Chamberlain’s decision.

His death played a role in convincing Mainers to abolish the death penalty 18 years later, after five more men had been hanged, including the last, Daniel Wilkinson, who in 1885 also strangled at the end of a rope.

Some questioned why Chamberlain let white killers live while singling out Harris for death.

Others wondered why the governor took no account of Harris’ obvious mental issues — his rambling statements to the press and authorities made it clear he lacked his full faculties.

But what perhaps proved most costly to Chamberlain’s political ambitions was simply crossing swords with a few men who wound up among the most powerful politicians in the country.

Republicans in Maine at the time were pretty solidly against the death penalty, putting Chamberlain in the minority of his own party, which had a strong grip on the state.

Frye, with whom Chamberlain sparred over Harris, wound up as the chief competitor during the former governor’s bid for a U.S. Senate seat.

With the help of Reed and other GOP bigwigs, Chamberlain fell short. Frye got the seat and held it so long that he eventually became the president pro tempore of the Senate.

In its account of the hanging of Harris, the Lewiston paper said the convict’s body would be sent to the Maine Medical School at Bowdoin College, where it would be used in training physicians.

Chamberlain followed the corpse to Brunswick a couple of years later to serve as the president of his alma mater.

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