The huge crowd appeared restless, focused on a small, thin man with dark eyes who stepped across the planks of the gallows, the wood creaking beneath his boots.
George Maledon, dressed in a black suit with a two-gun rig strapped around the outside of his coat, stood off to the side and listened while a lawman read death warrants to each of six felons standing side-by-side on the scaffold.
Maledon, chief executioner for Federal Judge Isaac Parker for the Western District of Arkansas, then stepped up to each of the condemned men and tightened the nooses around their necks.
Faces soaked in perspiration, the prisoners’ eyes vacant of hope, reflecting only fear.
“Once the rope is adjusted, don’t move your head, and this will all go quickly,” he counseled, pulling black caps over their faces.
George Maledon took great pride in his work, using ropes of the finest hemp, and tying the knot in such a fashion to break the man’s neck instantly rather then have him strangle.
In an interview with the Chicago Daily Tribune ( Sept. 25, 1887, pg. 26), Maledon said, “I always prepare the ropes a week or more before the day of execution and stretch them with dummies, adjusting the trap and letting them fall through five or six times each day.”
Maledon carried out his responsibility with great pride and repetitive ritual.
“I always shake the hand of each one and bid them good-bye just before pulling the black caps over, and I have become so accustomed to it that it is no more than bidding farewell to a friend who is starting out on a journey, perhaps never to return.”
Raised by immigrants in Detroit, Michigan, Maledon worked as a machinist by trade and an executioner by choice.
He traveled to Fort Smith, Arkansas, in his late teens and joined the city police force.
Maledon fought for the Union Army during the Civil War. After the war, he returned to Fort Smith and won an appointment as U.S. Deputy Marshal.
When Fort Smith needed an executioner, Maledon volunteered to take the job along with his regular activities as marshal.
Judge Parker wasted no time implementing a program to bring large numbers of criminals into custody. In his first few months on the job, his deputy marshals rounded up ninety-one defendants. Eighty received death sentences.
Maledon hanged at least sixty of the convicted. He shot several others trying to escape from the jail at Fort Smith.
As chief executioner, he earned $100 for each hanging. Once, he told an interviewer how he felt about his job.
“It certainly is not a very pleasant job, but I have become so accustomed to it that it now has no effect on me. I have got the business down fine, and know just how to prepare a noose and how to adjust one to make a complete and successful job.
“Of course, I feel sorry for any man who is so unfortunate as to get himself hung, but at the same time think a larger share of my sympathy is due the other fellow – the one that has been murdered.”
In 1895, a man by the name of Frank Carver killed Maledon’s 18-year old daughter, Annie.
Although convicted by Parker and sentenced to death, Carver managed to win a reprieve by way of an appeal to Washington.
Maledon, angry and disgusted by the decision, retired from his post as executioner and left Fort Smith.
A few years later, he toured the nation, appearing at carnivals and fairs, standing inside a tent displaying some of the nooses he used, along with pieces of the gallows’ beam, and photographs of some of the men he hanged.