Gene Notes

Some random and some not-so-random thoughts on family history.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Thriller Thursday - The Murder of Addison Ball Chinn concluded

The following are newspaper accounts of the capture, sentencing appeals and hangings of Whitney and O'Brien, murderers of A. B. Chinn. Note that Thompson was Earl Whitney's alias. These articles date from October 1902 through July 1903.

WARNING: These accounts include a very graphic account of the execution.

"Two men are held as suspects in Chinn murder"

Developments in the murder of Mr. A. B. Chinn and the serious wounding of his son Asa by masked burglars at an early hour Saturday morning took a serious and sensational turn last night at 7:30 o'clock when two white men giving their names as Charles Thompson and Claude O'Brien were placed under arrest by the police on suspicion of being the men who entered the Chinn home.


Whitney and O'Brien, sentenced to be hanged February 13, 1904 for the murder of A. B. Chinn.

"Murderers of A. B. Chinn Must Hang"

The Court of Appeals today affirmed the judgments of the Fayette Circuit Court sentencing Claude O'Brien and Earl Whitney to be hanged for the murder of Merchant A. B. Chinn at Lexington.  The murder was committed in October last, which Chinn surprised the men trying to rob his house.

"Would Not See Her"

Mrs. E. C. O'Brien, the mother of Claude O'Brien, the doomed murderer of A. B. Chinn, called this morning to Mrs. Chinn, the wife of the murdered man at her home on East Maxwell street presumably in the interest of her son.

From the Lexington Herald, July 25, 1903.


Unshaken By a Tremor, O'Brien's Lips Were Moving in Prayer. Remarkable Courage Displayed By Boys Hanged Yesterday.

Their last gaze upon a crucifix, a blur of curious faces dimly appearing in the background; a smile still playing upon the features of one and a stoical expression  wrapping the countenance of the other, his lips moving in his last prayer for forgiveness and peace as the black caps were drawn, two boys yesterday morning shot through a trap that left their bodies with necks broken dangling at the ends of the hangman's chords, and the murder of Addison B. Chinn was expiated.

It was 8:08; the chant of the priests was still echoing through the corridors of the Fayette county jail and all was silence within the enclosure where a hundred stood with uncovered heads, when the cluck of the trigger, the thud of the released trap and the groan of stretching hemp told in chorus the earthly agony of Earl Whitney and Claude O'Brien was ended.

Though meeting death under most ignominious circumstances, the display of courage, of grit, of fortitude, of poise furnished by these two lads was admirable, and robbed the execution of a horror and gruesomeness that was expected. It was an inspiration to see boys die like martyrs who were offering up their lives as sacrifices on the altar of some great cause, and one paused to consider what impress such masterly courage and such innate power might have left upon the century could it have been directed along lines of good instead of evil. In itself a powerful sermon, the hanging of these youths was probably the most impressive ever witnessed in Kentucky. It was the supreme test; they met it like heroes.

March to the Scaffold.

Excepting the scenes enacted on the scaffold itself the march from the death cell was the most impressive incident of the execution.

At 7:58 the death march began. The sheriff with his deputies had gone to the death cell where the condemned men were in religious service with the priests. In the corridor they were met by Jailer Wallace and his deputies. The formal transfer of the prisoners was made to the Sheriff to do with them according to the dictates of the law. The death march was delayed several minutes at the request of the priests.

At 7:58 o'clock with the priests in their sacerdotal robes leading, O'Brien and Whitney following. Sheriff Wilkerson and his deputies next and Jailer Wallace and his deputies last, the procession moved with measured tread through the corridors down the winding stairs of the jail. The priests chanted the while and the subdued sound of their voices penetrated the remotest corner of the jail, and floated like the sound of some distant dirge out to the hundred bared spectators in the yard below. Gradually the sound of the chanting became more distinct as the dread procession drew nearer, and finally emerged from the small steel door into the yard.

Doomed Men Appear.

Every eye was riveted upon the doomed men. At 7:59 o'clock out of the door they came with heads erect, smiling faces, and tread as firm as if they were going to receive the plaudits and laurels of an approving audience for some heroic deed, rather than to meet an ignominious death. Whitney appeared much the cooler, more self possessed man of the two and was actually laughing. As he emerged from the door, he passed several policemen to whom he waved his hand and said cheerfully "Good bye boys, good bye to you all." The words were spoken without a tremor and more like he was bidding farewell to friends whom he would see in the evening. Just before mounting the scaffold, he paused a moment to shake hands with several parties. The grip was firm and the hand shake was hearty, while the words of parting were spoken with a smile. His actions did not seem forced, but were as natural as they might have been under the most happy circumstances. While O'Brien was not noticed to smile, and did not  speak to any person, his conduct was thoroughly characteristic of his entire course of action since his imprisonment, he being more reserved and distant than Whitney. His step was firm and in his face there was no tremor.

On the Scaffold

Up the ten steps of the scaffold the procession moved in the same order in which they emerged from the door. As O'Brien cleared the last step and was on the scaffold it was just eight o'clock.

Whitney was still smiling, but the countenance of O'Brien remained unmoved. On the scaffold the prisoners took position on the trap facing each other, Whitney looking toward the north and O'Brien toward the south. As they took their places O'Brien looked round to the upturned faces, then to the persons on adjacent buildings and then toward the sun. He then looked down at the platform and remained in this position through the services read by the priests. Whitney looked with smiling face out upon the curious throng. While Father Boland, of Somerset, read the service the boys stood reverently attentive, and O'Brien's lips moved in fervent prayer. O'Brien seemed more fully to realize the terribleness of the situation than did his partner in crime. While reading the hand of Father Boland shook perceptibly and his voice was unsteady.

Kiss the Crucifix.

At the conclusion of the reading, Father Cunningham presented the crucifix, which was kissed first by O'Brien and then by Whitney. The priests then shook hands with both boys, bidding them good bye, and then stepped behind. In the farewell there was no sign of quaver or unsteadiness upon the part of the boys, who remained as firm as at any time since they took their stand upon the scaffold.

Hands Bound.

After the conclusion of the service and as soon as the priests had stepped from the trap, the officers took hold of the boys and turned them facing Limestone street, Whitney on the south and O'Brien on the north. Deputy Sheriffs C. H. Wilkerson and John McElroy then proceeded to strap Whitney's hands and feet, while Deputy Freedman performed the same duty for O'Brien. In the strapping, the hands of the officers shook so that they could with difficulty accomplish the work.

Pulled the Rope Too Tight.

Deputy McElroy then placed the rope around Whitney's neck in doing so pulled it so tight as to choke the prisoner, which caused his face to turn red and the tears to start in his eyes. Whitney said, "Don't pull the rope so tight, it's choking me." The rope was immediately readjusted.

Deputy Ben Freedman placed the rope around O'Brien's neck. The work was done rapidly and without the least confusion. The black caps were then placed. That for Whitney had to be cut as it was too small.

The Trap Sprung.

As soon as this was done, the deputies stepped back, and at 8:08 o'clock Sheriff Wilkerson pulled the lever. The bodies shot downward. There was no sound save the groan of the ropes and the click of the trap as it caught by the lever which retained it in place and kept it from swinging. The work was done so quickly that the spectators could hardly realize that in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye the two lives had been taken.

The Straps Released.

The straps were immediately removed from Whitney's limbs by Jail Physician A. W. Jones, and Dr. A. W. Hawkins, while Drs. F. O. Young and R. L. Gordon unbuckled those which bound the hands and feet of O'Brien. After the limbs of Whitney had been released the body drew up in several contortions, his hands moving and his whole body trembling for a moment. From the first O'Brien did not more than quiver. It was plainly evident that O'Brien's neck was broken, the vertebra being pulled apart, but there were many in the crowd who believed that Whitney was dying of strangulation. The necks of both boys were broken, however, though Whitney's neck resisted the severance shown in O'Brien's condition.

At 8:15 Dr. Young pronounced O'Brien dead and at 8:22 Dr. Jones pronounced Whitney dead. The time required for life to become extinct in the latter was fourteen minutes.

The drop for Whitney who weighed 145 pounds, was 5 feet 4 inches and for O'Brien who weighed only 118 pounds, 5 feet, 10 inches. For Whitney a three quarter inch rope was used and for O'Brien a five-eighths inch rope.

Jail Yard Cleared.

As soon as the trap was sprung the police began the work of clearing the yard. The spectators exhibited considerable reluctance in leaving before they had seen the whole thing through, and it was sometime before the last of the crowd was forced to leave the yard.

As soon as the crowd began to move out County Judge Bullock instructed Coroner Molloy to examine the bodies and see that life was extinct.

Ropes Cut and Bodies Taken Down.

At 8:20, after the bodies had been examined by Coroner Molloy, the ropes were cut and the bodies taken in charge by Undertaker Baker, of the firm of J. H. Wiehl & Son. The ropes were cut by Deputy Freckman, and with the assistance of two negro helpers they were placed in baskets in the yard for the purpose.

The Inquest.

When the bodies had been placed in the baskets, Coroner Molloy summoned jurors from the spectators and held an inquest according to the requirements of law. The verdict of the jury was that the bodies before them were those of Claude O'Brien and Earl Whitney, who had come to their death from being legally hanged.

Removed to Undertaking Establishment.

At the conclusion of the inquest the bodies were placed in Wiehl's dead wagon and removed to the undertaking establish where they were prepared for burial. The body of Whitney was shipped to Nashville, Tennessee, yesterday afternoon, leaving on 5:10 C & O train. The remains of O'Brien will be shipped to Nashville sometime today.

The Last Night.

The last night was spent in the utmost quietude, the prisoners remaining cool and cheerful. Shortly before retiring O'Brien engaged in an exchange of pleasantries with James Bess, under sentence to be hanged for the murder of Mrs. Martha Martin. The sounds of the voices could be heard throughout the gratings of the cells and the repartee was much enjoyed by the prisoners.

"I want to see the hanging," said Bess.

"You'll be next," retorted O'Brien.

"I've got some good evidence coming for me," responded Bess.

"It don't looked good to me," was the rejoinder.

The parries were greeted with titters by the prisoners.

Whitney went to bed at 9:45, while O'Brien stayed up and played his French harp until 10:15. By half past ten both boys were sound asleep and slept until wakened Friday morning at 5:30 o'clock by Deputy Thornton. They both said they "never felt better."

Fathers Boland and V. Cunningham came to the jail at 6 o'clock and at 7 o'clock the boys breakfasted. As they were both Catholics they ate no meat, and fish and eggs were the predominating articles of the meal. Even this meal was deferred until they received holy communion.

Long before the day had dawned the crowds began to collect about the jail, but were later dispersed by a squad of police under Captain Jenkins and Lieutenant Overly. Ropes were stretched across Short street on each side of the jail, and only those having tickets to the execution and newspapermen were allowed to pass.

Until the time to put on their grave clothes at 7:30 the boys remained with the priests. Both made confessions, but did not give permission for them to be given to the public. Shortly before the trap was sprung, the Sheriff asked the boys if they had any statement to make. Both declined the offer and the secret as to which fired the shot which killed Mr. Chinn goes to the grave with them.

Herald Extra.

The drop fell at 8:08 o'clock. Seven minutes later the Herald had its extra on the streets. Its competitor was beaten by twenty minutes. A special telephone line from the office of the jail enabled the Herald to receive a continuous account from the scene of the hanging.
They were executed by hanging on July 24, 1903. Justice was swift back then.

I couldn't find death certificates, but did find these transit permits for shipping the bodies for burial.

Copyright 2010, ACK for Gene Notes


  1. While doing a web search the other day for J. H. Wiehl & Sons here in Lexington, KY. I ran across your article on Thursday, July 29, 2010 - Thriller Thursday - The Murder of Addison Ball Chinn. I have never seen "Transit Permits" before and was wondering how one finds such records. I currently have a death certificate with the undertaker listed as J. H. Wiehl & Sons. I'm trying to verify if the deceased person belongs to my husband's side of the family. They sent the body back to Campton, KY (no cemetery or funeral home is listed for Campton, KY). Any help in understanding how to obtain Transit Permits would be greatly appreciated.

  2. Phyllis, I found these in the Kentucky death records. Perhaps they were issued rather than death certificates. Since these were the men responsible for the death of my relative, I wanted something for their deaths and this was all I could find.