"BY THE NECK UNTIL DEAD"
" . . . it was the judgment and sentence of the Court that said defendant _____, . . ."
"A Swing For a Swing":
After the Byzantine complications, elongated legal struggles and ambiguous justice ensuing from the Skinner murder, the 1871 J. H. Swing homicide must have offered a contrasting simplicity and blunt morality to its Cleveland audience. Consuming little more than one month from beginning to end, the Swing killing featured a clear-cut villain, a sympathetic victim and stellar police work by Cleveland's finest. So maybe the legal defense given the accused was nothing to boast about?--well, John Cooper wasn't the kind of defendant likely to give the American Civil Liberties Union sleepless nights, even if had been around to render him aid.
The Swing affair began on the early afternoon of Tuesday, November 21, 1871, when rumors flew through downtown Cleveland that a terrible murder had been committed over on Cedar Ave., just east of Perry St. (now East 22nd). It came to light about 1 pm, when Jesse Palmer and John Yahraus ran into each other at the front door of tinsmith James H. Swing's shop at 32 Cedar Ave. Palmer was there to make a purchase and Yahraus had come to pay a visit to Swing, from whom he had learned his trade as a tinsmith. When repeated knocking failed to rouse Swing, the two men opened the unlocked door and went into Swing's workroom, which occupied the back part of the one-story house he owned on Cedar St. They didn't find Swing there, nor was he in the back yard henery, where he kept his collection of prized domestic fowls. Walking past his bedroom window, they were unable to see inside, as the window was blocked by a large map of Ohio someone had placed in front of it. Returning to the work room, Yahraus and Palmer noticed pools of blood seeping from beneath the wooden partition which separated it from Swing's bedroom. Alarmed, they broke down the bedroom door and discovered what the next day's Plain Dealer justly termed a "sickening spectacle." Swing was lying more or less on his back, with his head leaning back. Nearly naked, his clothes lay in mere shreds on his skin, and his arms and torso were covered with blood. His face was almost unrecognizable, his entire head merely a beaten pulp of blood, brains and pieces of skull. There was blood on the walls, on the floor and thickly clotted on a heavy hammer which lay nearby on the floor. The room was a mess, a splintered wreckage of emptied drawers, ripped clothing, smashed dishes and broken kitchen utensils. Most appallingly, there was a soldering iron crammed into Swing's mouth and down into his throat, its four-inch copper handle sticking grotesquely out of his ruined mouth. The shaken Palmer and Yahraus immediately ran for the Cleveland police.
Superintendent Jacob Schmitt's men soon arrived, and they were as shocked as Palmer and Yahraus. It was obvious from the clotting of the blood that Swing had been dead for some hours and that his smashed body had lain undetected in his bedroom during that time. How could this have happened in the house of such a well-known man and on such a busy, well-traveled street? James H. Swing was a substantial, reputedly wealthy, respected man and this was likely no casual crime perpetrated on the spur of the moment. Two hours later, Coroner Schenck convened an inquest at Swing's house and after hearing testimony, declared that Swing had been murdered by an unknown hand. Several hours later, an aroused City Council authorized a reward of $500 for the apprehension of Swing's killers, an amount quickly boosted to $750 by the Cuyahoga County Commissioners.
Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 21, 1871
Up until the moment he was found swallowing a soldering iron, James H. Swing had been one of the great success stories of Cleveland's small but growing black community. Born in 1825, Swing had been the result of the unsanctified union between his slave mother and his father, allegedly a slave-holding aristocrat of the Lexington, Kentucky area. Freed by his father as a youth and apprenticed to a tinner, Swing had mastered his craft and come to Cleveland to live and work in the early 1850's. Owning his own home, where he also conducted his business, Swing had become both a prosperous businessman and a figure of some political weight in the small circle of Cleveland's black Republican leaders. Known for his education and probity, Swing gave political speeches during local election campaigns (Cleveland blacks had gained the right to vote in 1870) and was also venerated for his abilities as a raconteur, often entertaining visitors to his shop with a genial flow of amusing anecdote. He was also an amateur inventor, vintner and expert checker player.
True, his life had not been without sorrow. Lately, he had been borrowing small sums of money and even coal from his neighbors, belying his reputed wealth. And his 1869 marriage to a German girl, Lizzie Lever, had ended disastrously in divorce after only three months when she deserted him to ply her vocation as a streetwalker. But Swing had hopes of a reconciliation, and it was said that he had recently offered Lizzie $1,000 to return to him. No one could verify that he had an enemy in the world, much less one who would have dispatched him in the orgy of violence that had occurred in the back bedroom at 32 Cedar Ave. Not that Cleveland's 1871 newspapers were about to lavish unstinted praise on even a "good" Negro, as Swing's obituary in the Cleveland Herald demonstrated:
In personal appearance the deceased was rather repulsive than otherwise.
He was tall and gaunt, and extremely awkward in his motions. His face was pecked and pitted, and his coarse curly hair and whiskers presented an ungainly appearance. He had a low, receding forehead and as far as intellect was concerned he certainly appeared very inferior.
The solution of the Swing murder was a classic of solid, dogged and unromantic police procedure. The first clue came from a little black boy, who told detectives that he had seen a mulatto "wearing a light-colored coat" around 9 o'clock on the morning of the murder day. The mulatto was seated in Swing's workroom, reading a newspaper, while Swing sat smoking and talking with him. The boy's clue soon led to Thomas Murray, an acquaintance of Swing's who had also seen the mulatto in the light-colored coat. Murray had encountered him the previous night, when he came to call on Swing at 9 pm. Murray had only stayed about 15 minutes but he was sure that Swing and the mulatto were having hot words when he arrived and he sensed that Swing was angry at the other man. Several hours later, the key breakthrough in the Swing case came when his friend Allen Williams came forward. Williams, it developed, had also seen the mulatto in the light-colored coat at Swing's shop, sometime during the middle of Monday afternoon. More importantly, Williams asked Superintendent Schmitt what had happened to Swing's gold watch.
Schmitt didn't know but he intended to find out and by late Tuesday Cleveland detectives were checking all jewelry and watch repair shops in the area to see if there was anyone who could identify Swing's missing timepiece. Sure enough, a man named Julius Koepler was found in a Broadway Ave. jewelry shop and he immediately identified the missing watch as one he had repaired several times over the previous ten years. He told police its serial number (#45,006) and disclosed that he had scratched two identifying repair numbers on the inside of its case (1,100 and 1,157). Several hours later, Schmitt's men began distributing flyers with a description of the mysterious mulatto and the particulars of Swing's gold watch.
Now the case moved into high gear. In response to the flyer, a black man named Maxwell came forward. He told police that the mulatto was probably a man named John Cooper, with whom Maxwell had been living in a house on Newton St. (East 31st St.).
Early Tuesday morning, Maxwell related, Cooper had put all of this belongings into two trunks and hired a hack to take himself, his wife and their luggage to the Union Depot at the foot on Bank St. Maxwell didn't remember seeing any watch but he did think that Cooper had said something about returning to Chillicothe, Ohio where he had grown up.
Cooper seemed an improbable suspect at first. The police theory was that the murder had occurred sometime between 8 am and noon on Monday--and Cooper's presumed southbound train had left at 6:50 am., at least an hour before Swing's death. But further investigation turned up witnesses who had seen Cooper at the Union Depot and at various other locations in Cleveland after the departure of the 6:50 train. Moreover, police learned, John Cooper had told several different stories to those he encountered after he left the Union Depot. One was that he was going up town to retrieve his pocketbook from his home. The other was that he was going to drop by the Chamberlain block, where he had recently been employed as a laborer, to pick up his back pay. Inquiries confirmed that neither story was true. Even more interesting, it developed that Cooper, who at 6 am had not been able to check his bags in at the Depot because he lacked the money for the train tickets, had returned there some time later with sufficient funds to book himself, his wife and his luggage through to Xenia, Ohio on the 3:50 pm Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati & Indianapolis (C.C.C.&I) Railroad's southbound train. Many of these details were confirmed by a hack driver, Jim Lantry, who had taken the Coopers to the Union Depot on the murder morning. Early on the morning of Friday, November 24, Detective Sam Rowe, acting on Superintendent Jacob Schmitt's demand that he capture "that nigger at all hazards," set off on the train to Xenia in hot pursuit.
Rowe's quest was almost aborted by his traveling companion, John T. Veney. Veney knew Cooper well, had served with him in the 5th Ohio Colored Infantry during the Civil War and had been asked to accompany Rowe so he could aid in identifying Cooper. But the indiscreet Veney insisted on telling everyone they met what they were about, so the exasperated Rowe sequestered Veney at a hotel when they arrived in Xenia. Late Friday afternoon, Rowe looked up United States Deputy Marshall N. S. Tiffany and they decided to rent a rig and hunt for Cooper the next morning.
Saturday began well, with the discovery of Swing's watch at a nearby general store. Its proprietor, D. J. Fleming, told Tiffany that a mulatto calling himself G. C. Stewart had been there Thursday and had pawned the watch in return for a $14 stove. Fleming didn't know exactly where "Stewart" had gone but he had the impression that he was setting up residence in the area. Several hours later, after checking several miles of each of the major roads leading out of Xenia, Rowe and Tiffany stopped at a sawmill. Cooper wasn't there but the owner told the lawmen that he thought Cooper was working at the farm of L. P. Bonner, visible on a hill just a half a mile away. Several minutes later, Rowe and Tiffany pulled into Bonner's barnyard to find John Cooper splitting wood with an ax. Walking up to him, Tiffany grabbed his arm and Rowe said, "John Cooper, I arrest you for the murder of James Swing."
Cooper offered no resistance at all. Talking to L. P. Bonner, Rowe and Tiffany learned that Cooper had showed up Thursday and secured work with him as a tenant laborer and purchased the stove for his living quarters. In the tenant house they found Cooper's thoroughly apprehensive wife, Sarah. She was sitting on top of one of her husband's trunks and when Rowe opened it up he found a shirt and an undershirt heavily stained with blood. At first, Cooper blustered that the blood came from a nosebleed but he soon broke down, confessed and was carted off to the Xenia jail.
Even before they left Xenia, manacled together on the afternoon train, Rowe had extracted a confession from his seemingly impassive and emotionless prisoner. His story, with a few minor adjustments of chronology confirmed the theory police had constructed for the Swing murder. Having exhausted his financial resources, John Cooper had decided in mid-November to return to the area where he had grown up in Chillicothe. His pregnant bride of ten months, the former Sarah C. Newman, was loath to go; John had married her over the objections of his mother and she felt she would be unwelcome in her husband's family. The couple finally compromised on living in Xenia--but even that plan looked dubious when Cooper arrived at the Union Depot at 6 am on November 21 and discovered that he didn't have enough money to check his bags, much less for the train tickets. Telling Sarah he was returning to his Newton St. house to retrieve his pocketbook, he left the Depot on foot. As would become notorious, he was wearing a light-colored coat.
His first stop, shortly after 7am, was the Ontario Street Saloon near High St., where he fortified himself with a dose of brandy. Then he walked up Prospect to Erie (East 9th St.) and breakfasted at a confectionery store. Turning east, he made his way to Cedar Ave. and Swing's shop. Cooper was well-acquainted with the voluble tinsmith and he probably told the truth when he swore that he only went to the shop to cadge a loan from the well-off Swing. Conveniently, the industrious tinsmith was already open for business and hard at work when the anxious Cooper walked in the door.
Their interview did not go smoothly, to say the least. When Cooper asked him for the loan of a few dollars, Swing curtly refused and started lecturing Cooper about not having saved his money, that he was like all these young fellows, and how he should have put some of his wages by for leaner times, etc, etc. Cooper explained that he hadn't been able to find steady work but the older man was adamant. Finally, Cooper dropped the subject and picked up a newspaper and began reading it. It was sometime after 8 am, about the time the two men were seen together by the little neighbor boy.
Whatever his original intentions, Cooper, enraged by Swing's lecture, had now reached his fatal decision. Asking Swing what time it was, his eyes strayed to a large tinsmith's hammer which was on the floor of the workshop. Shortly after Swing told him the time, Cooper picked up the hammer, walked up behind Swing and hit him in the head as hard as he could with it. The surprised Swing turned around, looked up, said, "Hello! Are you going to murder me?" and fell unconscious to the floor.
Quickly fishing out Swing's pocketbook, Cooper extracted the $15 inside and removed Swing's gold watch from its chain on his vest. At this point, the stricken Swing made some kind of gurgling noise, so Cooper fetched the bloody hammer and hit him another three or four times--he could never remember how many--until he stopped gurgling. Then Cooper dragged the body into the bedroom and began tearing the house apart, virtually wrecking it, as he smashed and ripped open its contents in a desperate attempt to find more valuables. Once more, he was interrupted by some noise coming from Swing, and, again, he picked up the hammer and hit Swing until he ceased making racket. Dr. William H. Carter, who performed Swing's autopsy, would find eleven wounds on Swing's pulverized head, any one of them sufficient to cause death, with four portions of the skull driven right into the brain. Just to make sure Swing didn't start up making noise again, Cooper took a soldering iron off a nearby shelf and crammed it as far as he could down Swing's throat. He then washed his bloody hands in a basin of water, neatly hung the stained hand towel on the back of a chair, locked the bed room door, unlocked the front door and left the bloody shambles behind him. It was about 8:30 am. Taking a circuitous route, he walked up Cedar to Case Ave. (East 40th St.), Case Ave. to Prospect St., Prospect St. to Huntington (East 18th St.), Huntington to Superior St., Superior to Erie St. (East 9th), Erie to St. Clair St., and west on St. Clair to the Union Depot at Bank St. (West 6th). There he told the skeptical Sarah that he had collected his back pay and they remained at the depot until the 3:50 southbound took them away to Xenia.
Cooper was an interesting contrast to the decidedly self-made, middle-class Swing. Born Elias Stewart in 1844 to free parents, Cooper's father had died when he was very young and he went to live at the age of eight with his uncle, William Cooper (whose surname he took), on a farm about 16 miles from Chillicothe. Enlisting in the 5th Colored Infantry for a 30 month stretch during the Civil War, Cooper had acquired a reputation among his fellow soldiers for viciousness and cruelty. Returning to Chillicothe, he had taken over his uncle's farm for a few years, a property which he subsequently sold, criminally defrauding the rightful owners, his mother, his grandmother and aunt. Marrying Sarah, a light-colored mulatto, against his family's wishes, he drifted up to Cleveland about April of 1871. There he worked at various casual labors, including stints as a deckhand, construction laborer and street paver. By early November he had run out of both money and work and with his wife pregnant with their first child, he was desperate.
He had not meant to murder Swing but he had needed the money and his real motive, he insisted, was "my great love for my wife." Indeed, Cooper had nothing but good to say of the man he had butchered: "I never had no hard words with Swing. He always used me well."
Taken off the train at the Scranton Rd. station of the Atlantic & Great Western railroad (near the present day intersection of Scranton and Girard, just north of the Lorain-Carnegie bridge) to avoid an ugly crowd at the Union Depot, Cooper was rushed to the Central Police Station and then taken to the County Jail on Public Square. There, the next day, he dictated a full confession to fellow prisoner F. H. Bird, which confirmed everything he had already told Rowe on the train back to Cleveland. His wife Sarah remained in Chillicothe, as Sam Rowe had decided that her lack of money for a train ticket was not the responsibility of the Cleveland police.
What kind of man was John Cooper? His 1871 rap sheet in the Cleveland Police department's register (a newfangled innovation of Superintendent Jacob Schmitt's) described him as American by birth, laborer by occupation, "colored," aged 28, 5'10", of yellow complexion; with black eyes; black, curly hair, good teeth, a straight nose and weighing 173 lbs. Among truly distinguishing characteristics, it was noted that he was missing all the toes on his right foot, had scars on his left jaw and right ear, and that there was a bump on his left hand where a sixth digit had been amputated. Not that most of the white citizens of Cleveland were particularly interested. The prevailing social attitudes towards men like Cooper were revealingly expressed by the Plain Dealer article reporting his arrest:
In appearance he does not differ particularly from hundreds of other colored men to be found in this city, so far as any expression of cruelty or malice is concerned.
Indeed he would scarcely if ever be picked out from a crowd as a man likely to commit so inhuman a crime.
To say the least, Cooper's trial and execution were dispatched with a celerity that must have amazed participants in the drawn-out Skinner affair. Taken to the Police Court for his preliminary examination 36 hours after he arrived in Cleveland, Cooper was indicted on a first-degree murder charge on November 29, only eight days after Swing was murdered. His trial, commencing on December 15, lasted exactly four hours. Held before Common Pleas Judge Robert F. Paine, Cooper was defended by Isidore Roskoph and M. S. Castle and prosecuted by Edwin P. and A. T. Slade. It could not have struck Cooper as auspicious that his trail opened just 12 hours after the conviction of another black killer, William Jones, in the very same courtroom before Judge Paine. And the only family solace left to him was the presence of the long-suffering Sarah, who stayed tearfully by his side during the fateful day. In answer to M. S. Castle's plea for her help, Cooper's mother had written a reply that was made public that very morning:
To M. S. Castle, Esq.
It was truly a no-frills trial. After a jury was chosen in only 30 minutes, the State's witnesses testified briefly to the grisly details of the scene in Swing's shop and Cooper's flight, pursuit, capture and return to Cleveland. Then Cooper himself took the stand--and pounded the final nails in his own legal coffin. Repudiating the version of the murder retailed in his published confession, he now insisted that Swing had hit him first, trying to eject him from his shop. All Cooper could remember after that was knocking Swing down once with his fist--he had no memory at all of the murder, much less of shoving the soldering iron down Swing's throat. (The fact that Coroner J. C. Schenck was uncertain whether Swing was alive or dead when he swallowed the soldering iron probably neither helped nor hurt Swing's defense). The jury's unambiguous reaction to Cooper's incredible testimony was vividly captured by a reporter for the Cleveland Leader:
Frequent low ejaculations of incredulity were heard among his listeners as he continued in his account of the occurrences at the shop of his victim--a story contradictory of all his previous confessions made in jail and to some of the officers. These statements, which he was making under his solemn oath to the jury, seemed to be in such marked deviation from the truth that many expressed a regret that he had been allowed to go upon the stand at all.
After Cooper's foolish statement, there wasn't anything more for either side to say. Both the defense and prosecution rested with any rebuttal or final arguments and, following Judge Paine's brief instructions, the case went to the jury at 5:30 pm. They returned only 15 minutes later, after three quick ballots, with a unanimous verdict of Guilty of Murder in the First Degree. (The first two ballots had been 11-1). Consistent with his behavior since his arrest, Cooper showed no emotion as the verdict was read. The entire proceeds had taken exactly five hours of court time, still a record in a Cuyahoga County capital case. The next morning's Plain Dealer probably well expressed public opinion on the matter with its jocular headline: "A SWING FOR A SWING."
Remaining in character, Cooper exhibited no visible emotion on December 19, when Judge Paine sentenced him to hang. When asked if he had anything to say, Cooper replied, "No sir, I have not," and Paine let him have it with rhetorical gusto:
The murder was discovered within two or three hours after it was committed and the mutilated body and its surroundings presented a spectacle so horrid and revolting as almost to lead to the belief that the wicked deed had not only been instigated by the Devil, but executed by him in person. . . . It is as difficult to satisfactorily comprehend and estimate as it is humiliating and revolting to believe that depravity and malice necessary for such a crime constitute elements in the human character. Fancied or real necessity for a small sum of money and the hope that you should by that means obtain it was made the occasion of thus barbarously putting to death a man who had never given you just cause of offense and whom you regarded as a friend. But it is not proper that I should further remind you of the heinous nature of your offense . . . .
Cooper remained erect during the Judge's tirade, sometimes with his thumbs in the pockets of his pantaloons or with his right hand on the back of a chair, staring vacantly as if he was completely unaware that his doom had been decided.
As the date for his April 25 hanging approached, Cooper showed little change in his habitually stolid demeanor. Occasionally he would laugh or sing but most of the time he just stared off into space. He had few visitors, his wife Sarah departing Cleveland in March for her approaching confinement, except for the Rev. Dr. Lathrop Cooley and the Rev. W. F. Jones. Cooley, a prominent Protestant minister in northeast Ohio made something of a career of inflicting himself on condemned prisoners and the Rev. W. F. Jones was a well-known and beloved black minister in Cleveland. In truth, Cooper showed little interest in their spiritual ministrations as his days dwindled down to a precious few, being far more preoccupied with the financial support of his wife. Two hand lettered signs on the bars of his cells beseeched visitors to make donations to a small cardboard offering box and it was reported that it attracted an impressive amount of coin and scrip. Even the hammering of the scaffold-builders during his last week left him unfazed: to all visitors he simply announced, "I am first-rate."
April 25 arrived, and, as expected, Sheriff John Frazee was besieged with requests for invitations to the Cooper hanging. Frazee eventually narrowed the lucky invitees down to about 150, but hundreds of others crowded outside the jailyard, craning for a view of the grim doings. After eating the traditionally "hearty" breakfast, Cooper expressed a desire to see the scaffold, the same used in all the previous Cleveland hanging's except O'Mic's. Just before he left for his final walk, a delegation of prisoners led by forger Louis Brandt cheered him while Brandt read a short speech of sympathy. To them, Cooper said that he had no dread of hanging but he regretted the deed he had done.
At 11:48 am, John Cooper, wearing a dark sack coat, dark pants, a white shirt, a narrow black necktie, morocco slippers and black gloves, was led out to the scaffold. With his hair parted neatly in the middle and his face an impassive mask, he was described by one witness "undoubtedly the coolest man in the jail." Mounting the stairs to the gallows, he handed his last testament to Rev. Cooley and listened quietly while Cooley read from the 51st Psalm ("A broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.") Then it was Cooper's turn:
Well, I'm on the gallows, gentlemen, one and all. I've been told this will be the end of me but I don't know yet. Gentlemen, one and all, all I've got to say to you is that I have left a few lines which some of you may read in a few days and all I've got to say is not do as I have done . . . . Only a few minutes that I shall have on this earth, but that don't daunt me; that I can say to you all with a good heart. I hope the God above has pardoned me for all that I have ever done.
In the sight of man and God, my heart beats, I must tell you gladly. . . I'm sorry for what I have done.
Following Cooper's speech, the Rev. Dr. Cooley, as his request, stated that Cooper wished everyone to know that the two leading causes of his crime were allowing himself to give into his passions through physical violence and the frequent use of intoxicating liquors.
At 12 noon exactly, Cooper stepped to the drop. Taking off his necktie, coat and vest, he laid them neatly on a chair, an observer noted, "as if he were just going to sleep in his bedroom." He bounced lightly on the trap, which some hanging purists present judged an unseemly levity. Then he shook hands with his executioners and submitted calmly while his hands were manacled, his arms and legs pinioned and the black cap put over his head. The well-used hemp rope, which had taken off every condemned man since Dr. John Hughes, was placed around his neck and seconds later Cooper dropped like a stone through the trap at 12:03 pm. The doctors couldn't decided later whether he died instantly from a broken neck or strangled to death at a more leisured pace but they agreed that his sufferings had been slight. At 12:38 pm his body was cut down, put in a small, simple coffin and shipped to his wife in Chillicothe.
In his final testament, published in Cleveland newspapers, Cooper expanded on his scaffold remarks but offered no additional particulars of how he came to murder James H. Swing. His last words were a warning to youngsters who might be tempted to embark on the same path that had brought him to a hangman's noose:
Therefore, my young friends, wherever you may be, let these sayings of mine be a warning to you and all others, young or old, great or small, no matter what your station in life has been, it matters nothing about that. And if you have an evil habit, that is, in doing things "on the sly," if you have a habit of this kind, my friend, wherever you may be you had better throw it aside; if you don't it will be the ruination of you some day or other--may be you may be induced to do a deed like I have been led to do.
ã Copyright 2000 by John Stark Bellamy II and Cleveland State University. All rights reserved.