The hanging of Dr. Vincent

May 27, 2012

Photo: Fresno County Sheriffs Department

Then: The gallows used to carry out the October 27, 1893 execution of Dr. Frank Vincent.

People at the bus stop on M Street at Courthouse Park might be surprised to know that just over their shoulders stood the gallows where, nearly 120 years ago, Fresno County carried out its only legal hanging.

The executed: Dr. Frank Vincent, a disgraced, drug-addicted, alcoholic physician who murdered his wife, Annie.

Vincent’s drinking had plagued the couple’s marriage and his career almost from the start. When Annie gave birth to a son, they moved to Fresno from Red Bluff, seeking a new start. The medical practice was soon thriving, and the handsome, red-bearded Dr. Vincent, a graduate of University of California Medical College, became a prominent citizen. He built a house at 1459 I Street (now Broadway; the former home site is a vacant lot).

But drinking soon overshadowed his promising career. As his practice fell off, an addiction for cocaine emerged.

A former patient even wrote to the Fresno Daily Morning Republican: “Would it not be wiser and in better taste for a certain noted physician to refrain from attending the funerals of his patients?”

Annie took in sewing to make ends meet, becoming the sole provider for the family, which now included two of her younger sisters. After threats of violence, she kicked Vincent out of the home.

Living largely in the backs of saloons, Vincent was served with divorce papers on Dec. 13, 1890. He bragged that the case would never be brought to court, and he was right.

On the morning of Dec. 18, he stopped into a gun shop to borrow a gun to “shoot a dog” that he said had been pestering him.
Just after 1 p.m., 27-year-old Annie, sewing at home with two other women, heard footsteps on the porch. Frank walked in, and asked if he could talk with her.

He asked if she had any good news for him. Would she withdraw the suit? “No,” she replied. “Then take this,” he said, offering her a drink from a vial of poison. She declined. “You’ll take this then!” he cried, pulling out the gun.
She tried to flee with the other women, but he fired three shots into her and then, as she lay dying, pumped a fourth one into her chest.

A police officer, a neighbor home for lunch, heard the shots, and found the doctor over his wife’s body, gun still smoking. After a brief struggle, the officer walked Vincent to the old brick jail next to the courthouse on M Street.
Along the way, they passed a local undertaker, whom Vincent greeted: “Hello Crawford. I want you to go up to the house and take charge of my wife’s remains. I have just killed her.”

Hundreds gathered at the Vincent home, many viewing Annie’s body, dressed in a black gown, with a thimble still on her finger.

The brutal murder of a young and popular woman outraged the city. A lynch mob gathered at the jail, and Vincent, asked to be shot instead of being turned over to the angry crowd. The mob cooled down when news broke that he downed the contents of a secreted second vial of poison; Vincent, though, was revived.

His trial, beginning March 19th, 1891, was swift. The defense pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, but the jury found found Vincent guilty of murder.
On April 8, Superior Court Judge Samuel A. Holmes sentenced him to hang on May 29, 1891. Ironically, a day later, a new law was passed that would take effect May 30, 1891, stipulating that all executions would take place in state prisons. His sentence therefore would be carried out by Fresno County.

A lengthy series of appeals to the state and U.S. supreme courts failed, as did a personal appeal to the governor. The execution was set for October 27, 1893.
A gallows was borrowed from San Bernardino County, and set up inside a high, wood fence enclosure constructed on one side of the jail to keep the execution out of sight of curiosity seekers.

On the day before the execution, Vincent held court in his cell, greeting many of the city’s curious, men, women and even children, some holding back giggles. It was said he enjoyed the attention. Ironically, one of the county’s most notorious criminals, train robber Chris Evans, occupied a cell in the jail at the same time. He would later break out.

The autumn execution day broke crisp and clear to a carnival-like atmosphere at Courthouse Park. The park overflowed with an estimated 4,000 men, women and children, toting picnic baskets, waiting for what they called “Doc Vincent’s necktie party.” Sheriff Jay Scott sent invitations to prominent citizens, who were allowed inside the enclosure. About 600 would cram into the small yard.

The uninvited bored holes into the fence with pocket knives to get a glimpse. A pair of boys tried digging under the wall. Tall trees soon were full of people.

Just before noon, with no sign of fear or remorse, and chewing on his last cigar, the doctor climbed the 13 steps. The last bit of medical advice he dispensed was for himself. He gave directions for careful placement of the knot of the noose to insure that his neck would be broken; he feared strangulation. His offer to spring the trapdoor himself–to spare the executioner any guilt– was declined.

“Do you have anything to say, Doc?” the sheriff asked. “All I’ve got to say to my friends is this: I thank them, may God bless them,” he replied. “To my enemies, may God forgive them. We are ready, Mr. Sheriff.” A black hood was placed over his head. At high noon, he gave a nod and the trap was sprung. He was pronounced dead minutes later. The following day, Dr. Vincent’s body was shipped by rail to Napa for burial.

“Justice Served” was the headline in the Republican. The Fresno Daily Evening Expositor reported in the execution’s aftermath, “There seems to be something of a relief when it was over. Look at it in any light possible, it is not a pleasant thing to hang a human being, and the citizens all felt that it was an unpleasant necessity. The gallows had not a pleasing appearance after it had done its part. Perhaps it was a matter of imagination, to a large extent, but nobody pronounced it a pleasant object to look at.”

The old jail was torn down in 1959. The execution was the last in California outside the walls of a state prison.

John Walker/The Fresno Bee

Now: Just behind the M Street bus stop at Courthouse Park, stood the old Fresno County jail, built in 1888 and torn down in 1959, which was the site of the hanging of Dr. Frank Vincent.