How an English laborer's inappropriate relationship with a teenage boy helped end capital punishment in Minnesota
It's a sordid tale of obsession that ended in a gruesome way and left Minnesotans clamoring for a change in how criminals were punished.
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ST. PAUL — When a state chooses to make a dramatic change in the way it enforces law and order -- most notably in how it punishes those who break the law, it’s safe to assume the change would come after careful study, well-reasoned feedback from the state’s residents or maybe after those residents took to the streets to protest and demand change.
But when the state of Minnesota chose to abolish the death penalty in the early 20th century, the change came not from any of those things, but from the fallout of a forbidden love affair between a mutinous, bar-brawling Englishman and a teenage boy. And how the people from the land of 10,000 lakes reacted to it.
The tale of William Williams and Johnnie Keller has become legendary and it all began in Cornwall, England.
Looking for a better life
William Williams was born in Cornwall in 1877. By all accounts he led a tough life. He once said his father was taken away to an insane asylum when he was young. He had two sisters in England, but no other family. By the time Williams was a teenager, the mining industry in Cornwall was in decline, leaving tens of thousands of young Cornish men looking for a way out. Boarding a ship to America promised a fresh start. And that's what Williams did. It appears he had immigrated to the United States sometime before 1898 and eventually found work as a steamfitter.
Steamfitters in the late 19th century, like William Williams, worked long and hot hours, installing and repairing steam pipes. Working conditions weren’t always healthy and safe. In fact by 1903, Williams had fallen ill with diptheria and was hospitalized near where he was working in St. Paul. It was there that he met a local boy named Johnnie Keller. He was 14 and the son of German immigrants and was also in the hospital for diphtheria.
The man and the boy struck up a friendship and perhaps more. Some historians have deduced that the two were involved in an intimate, homosexual relationship. These days, we’d view Williams in his mid-20’s as a pedophile for having a romantic relationship with a 14-year-old boy. But according to the Minnesota State Historical Society, intimate relationships between male laborers, including males of different ages were not that unusual in the early 20th century.
After they were released from the hospital, Williams and Keller actually lived together in St. Paul for a while, then took off together and traveled across Minnesota to Manitoba looking for work. But when Williams tried to bring Keller with him to Canada a third time, Keller’s parents put their feet down and brought the now 16-year-old Johnnie back home after two years with Williams.
However, Williams didn’t want his time with Johnnie to end. He sent letters to the teen professing his love. Some of the letters started getting threatening.
Williams wrote : "Keep your promise to me this time, old boy, as it is your last chance. You understand what I mean and should have sense enough to keep your promise."
Keller's parents insisted Johnnie not write him back. F rustrated by the lack of reply from Johnnie, on the evening of April 12, 1905, he went to the Keller’s home at 1 Reid Court in St. Paul to confront the Kellers. Williams later told police he had been drinking a lot that day, but he wasn't drunk. However, the next thing he remembers is holding a smoking gun and both Johnnie and his mother were laying near him.
Williams told police, “I do not know anything about the shooting. Johnnie locked the revolver in the trunk and I did not have the key. I was talking to Mrs. Keller and -- when all of the sudden I was standing alone in the room with a smoking revolver in my hand. The room was filled with blue smoke that hurt my eyes. But after a minute, I saw Mrs. Keller lying on the floor. She seemed to be hurt and I said I would go get help. Johnnie was lying on the bed very still and I thought he was asleep.”
But Keller was not asleep. He was mortally wounded from a gunshot wound behind his right ear. He died early the next morning, while his mother Mary, who had been shot in the abdomen and the back died several days later.
"I would like to see Johnnie once more. For he was my best friend and I thought the world of him. I would not have hurt him for the world.
-Murder suspect William Williams said he wouldn't shoot his teenage love, but he couldn't explain why he had a smoking gun in his hand.
When he was arraigned on charges of first-degree murder days later, Williams seemed almost confused by what was happening.
“I would like to see Johnnie once more. For he was my best friend and I thought the world of him. I would not have hurt him for the world. I cannot believe that such a thing happened. But maybe I did it. I was standing in the room with a gun in my hand and I am sure Mrs. Keller would not have shot herself and Johnnie so I must have shot them," he said.
A sketchy past
Despite Williams' trial being more than a month away, some newspapers in the state were relentless in their treatment of him.
At no time did they say he was an "alleged" killer or call him a "suspect." Instead he was called the "murderer" of the Kellers before he was even convicted. The headline of the Saint Paul Globe on April 14, 1905 reads: "MURDERER OF JOHN KELLER IS A DANGEROUS MAN."
The paper went into great detail about Williams' conviction in Florida in 1898 while serving with the 15th Minnesota Volunteer Regiment. He was court martialed and sentenced to six years in prison for leading a band of riotous soldiers who wanted to "go get" a saloon owner who kicked their buddy out of a bar. The group allegedly led by Williams charged past officers who tried to stop them. When they didn't stop, the officers called out the cavalry. One Minnesota officer recalls Williams, who they believed had deserted the English army years earlier, shouting "Shoot the scoundrels!" when the cavalry arrived.
Later, Williams said he was not a deserter, but had left the British army because he had gotten sick and he was not the leader of the mutinous band, but took the blame because he was a foreigner.
"I was singled out to stand for the riot because I was not a Minnesota boy,"
-Murder suspect William Williams on his conviction of mutiny in the U.S. Army.
“I went with the crowd. We all had guns. We had no chance to fight for we were surrounded by a troop of cavalry and would have been shot to pieces. I was singled out to stand for the riot because I was not a Minnesota boy," he said.
He was eventually pardoned for the incident.
But trouble seemed to follow Williams. Just two years later, he had made his way up to Hibbing, Minnesota, where he got into a fight with a man the paper merely described as “an Italian.” Williams allegedly shot and wounded the man and was sentenced to a year and a half in a reformatory. Shortly after that is when he made his way to St. Paul where he would meet Johnnie Keller.
Sentenced to hang
During his trial for the Keller deaths, Williams used “emotional insanity” as his defense, saying that alcohol and an argument made him temporarily insane. After hearing readings of the intimate letters he sent to Johnnie Keller, the court rejected the claim and on May 19, 1905, a jury eventually found him guilty of first-degree murder which meant he would be executed.
Williams was set to be hanged on Feb. 13, 1906. Thanks to an unusual law passed in 1889, this hanging would be performed differently than many in the past. The John Day Smith law, named for its sponsor, set out to keep the public under control during an execution. It seems prior to 1889, Minnesota had a long history of rowdy executions, including executions by lynch mobs that worked outside the legal system. The law required that all executions be held in the middle of the night with no journalists present. The thought was that by suppressing information about the hanging, the public wouldn’t get riled up.
As Williams walked to the gallows in the middle of the night, in the basement of the Ramsey County Courthouse, he continued to proclaim his innocence, going so far as to say it was the officials that were performing the execution that were breaking the law.
"Gentlemen, you are witnessing an illegal hanging, I am accused of killing Johnnie Keller. He was the best friend I ever had and I hope I meet him in the other world. I never had improper relations with him. I am resigned to my fate. Goodbye," Williams said.
But even after Williams said his goodbyes it would be several more minutes before he would actually be proclaimed dead. The rope they used to hang Williams was too long and when Williams hit the floor after dropping through the trap door of the gallows, his toes touched the ground. Three police officers were required to hold Williams up by the rope for more than 14 minutes until he finally died of strangulation.
If the John Day Smith law had been followed, no one would have found out about the gruesome, cruel, botched hanging.. But at least one reporter from the St. Paul Daily News had somehow snuck into the hanging and witnessed the entire thing. He described the botched hanging in detail and the public, many of whom were already opposed to capital punishment were horrified and it solidified their belief executions needed to be abolished in Minnesota.
A sympathetic character?
But something else was at play, it turns out that Williams had become something of a sympathetic figure. It might be hard to believe today that anyone could feel sorry for a 26-year-old man who apparently had an intimate relationship with a 14-year-old boy, but in 1906 Minnesota some looked at Williams with empathy, particularly after his love letters to Keller were made public.
According to the Minnesota State Historical Society, “his story of love and heartbreak had been relatable and he was brave in his final days.”
Public opinion shifted in the days following the Williams hanging. Now more Minnesotans saw the death penalty as cruel and they began to see it as ineffective in deterring crime.
Five years later, the death penalty was abolished in the state. While illegal lynchings took place until 1920, the days of legally sending someone to hang were done.
Would it have happened without William Williams and his forbidden love affair? Probably, at some point. But the case of the lovesick steamfitter will forever go down as the catalyst that ended capital punishment in the state of Minnesota.