Alfred Hamilton shoots and kills attorney David M. Woodbury in Anacortes on September 7, 1899.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 1/18/2012
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10004

On September 7, 1899, Alfred Hamilton (1872-1902) shoots and kills prominent attorney David. M. Woodbury (1849-1899) without provocation. Hamilton, a notorious miscreant, has been wandering around Anacortes intoxicated, threatening the citizenry with a revolver, and efforts by the city marshal to arrest him without bloodshed have been unsuccessful. Woodbury lingers in great pain for three days before dying on September 10, 1899. A Skagit County jury will find Hamilton guilty of first-degree murder with the mandatory sentence of death. On appeal the Washington State Supreme Court will grant him a new trial based on judicial error. To assure a fair and impartial jury, Hamilton's retrial will be held at the Whatcom County Courthouse in Bellingham. Once again, he will be found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to hang. Hamilton's attorneys will appeal the subsequent conviction to the state Supreme Court, where the judgment of the lower court will be affirmed. On May 23, 1902, Hamilton will be hanged in the courtyard outside the Whatcom County Courthouse. This will be the last legal execution to occur in Washington outside the confines of the state penitentiary at Walla Walla.

A Life of Crime

Alfred Hamilton was born in England in 1872 and came to America in 1891. He was first arrested by the Seattle Police in 1896 for stealing chickens and later for other crimes involving theft and robbery. Hamilton, a deserter from the British Royal Navy, claimed to be a fisherman, but was known throughout the Puget Sound region as the leader of band of pirates and smugglers that specialized in the theft of expensive fishing nets and fish traps, a lucrative and relatively safe enterprise. One of their biggest hauls occurred in the spring of 1899 when they stole 15 new fishing nets, worth more than $3,000, from the Fraser River in British Columbia. But Hamilton's gang, one of the boldest on the sound, would steal anything that was left unprotected. He was known to have committed at least two murders and suspected of being involved in the unexplained disappearances of several fishermen.

On Wednesday, September 6, 1899, Alfred Hamilton, alias Alfred Hawkins, age 26, arrived at Anacortes in his fishing sloop with a load of salmon. He sold the fish to a cannery for more than $1,000 and then proceed into the city to carouse and gamble. During the evening, he drew his revolver several times and threatened a number of townsmen. A cohort eventually persuaded Hamilton to return to his boat and stow the gun away. Afterward, Hamilton returned to the city and continued carousing and gambling all night and well into the next day. At some point, he heard that someone intended to rob him and he returned to his boat and retrieved his revolver.

On Thursday afternoon, September 7, Hamilton accused William Londerville, sitting in a chair at McHale's Barber Shop, of having designs on his bankroll and threatened to shoot him. But Londerville, a shake-mill worker, wasn't involved in any plot to steal Hamilton's money and complained to City Marshal Charles Becker about the death threat. Becker decided to lodge Hamilton in the Anacortes City Jail until he sobered up and calmed down.

Hamilton was armed, however, and Marshal Becker was not. He found Hamilton still ranting at the barber shop and cautiously entered the front door. Hamilton immediately drew his gun and ordered Becker to raise his hands. After a brief, unsuccessful conversation about being drunk and disorderly, Becker backed out of the shop and went to obtain an arrest warrant. Hamilton, cursing and uttering threats, followed Marshal Becker up P Street (now Commercial Avenue) and into the Platt Building, housing the Bank of Anacortes and several professional offices on the second floor, including the Anacortes American newspaper. Marshal Becker was looking for City Attorney/U. S. Commissioner Henry D. Allison to issue a warrant, but he wasn't in his office. Hamilton, outraged that anyone would have the temerity to interfere in his personal business, ordered Becker to halt and raise his hands.

Hearing a loud commotion in the hallway, Douglass Allmond, editor of the Anacortes American, stepped from his office and asked what was going on. Hamilton immediately pointed his gun at Allmond and told him if he moved, he would be shot. At that point, David M. Woodbury, age 50, a prominent Anacortes attorney, left his office to investigate the disturbance in the corridor. Hamilton immediately leveled his revolver at Woodbury and ordered him raise his hands. When Woodbury told him to put away the gun and leave, Hamilton shot him and he collapsed onto the floor mortally wounded.

While Hamilton's attention was focused on Woodbury, Allmond jumped back to his office, opened a window and shouted for help. Hamilton turned from his victim and started to leave the building, brandishing his revolver at the bystanders who had gathered in the hallway. They let him pass, but on the staircase, Ernest Kasch, a street-level merchant, tripped Hamilton and he tumbled down the steps to the first-floor landing. Becker, in hot pursuit, pounced on Hamilton and Daniel McDonald, who had just entered the building, seized the gunman's right arm and snatched the revolver away. Marshal Becker arrested Hamilton and locked him away in the city jail. His loaded .38 caliber Ivar Johnson revolver was seized as evidence of the crime. Sheriff Edwin Wells, hearing rumors of a lynching, moved Hamilton to the Skagit County Jail at Mount Vernon and doubled the guard to forestall any violence or escape attempts.

Death of David Woodbury

Woodbury was carried into his office where he was attended to by Drs. George B. Smith and E. Edwin Butler. After consulting with specialists in LaConner and Seattle, the two physicians concluded there was nothing that could be done to save the victim's life. Woodbury suffered for almost three days in great pain and died at 10:15 a.m. on Sunday, September 10, 1899.

The postmortem, conducted in Mount Vernon by pathologist Dr. Albert C Lewis revealed the bullet had passed through the upper lobe of his left lung and fractured a vertebra, paralyzing the lower half of his body. The funeral service for Woodbury was held at his home in Anacortes and burial was at Grandview Cemetery on Hillcrest Drive. David Morse Woodbury, a native of Moretown, Vermont, was survived by his wife, Estelle, age 45, and 14-year-old daughter, Vida.

The Trial

On Friday, September 15, Sheriff Wells brought Hamilton to Anacortes City Hall for a preliminary hearing before Police Justice John J. See. Hamilton engaged two Seattle attorneys, Robert H. Lindsay and John B. Wright, as defense counsel. Skagit County Prosecutor Maynard P. Hurd conducted the case for the state, calling only two witnesses. Douglass Allmond testified he saw the defendant shoot Woodbury and Dr. George Smith testified regarding the victim's death. The defense offered no testimony and asked witnesses only a few perfunctory questions. Justice See bound Hamilton over for trial on a charge of first-degree murder and ordered him held without bail.

The murder trial of Alfred Hamilton began on Tuesday, November 7, 1899, at the Skagit County Courthouse in Mount Vernon before Judge Jessie P. Houser. The state was represented by Prosecutor Hurd and former Superior Court Judge Henry W. McBride (1856-1937). The first day was taken up in arguments for change of venue, which the court denied. Further legal proceedings delayed jury selection until late Wednesday afternoon. A jury, composed of 12 men, was impaneled late Friday afternoon.

In opening statements, Prosecutor Hurd said he would present testimony from witnesses who saw the defendant deliberately shoot David M. Woodbury and that the act was ruthless and unprovoked. For over 24 hours before the murder, Hamilton had been carousing and gambling and threatening the citizenry with a firearm. It was clearly an act of first-degree murder for which he should be hanged. Defense Counsel Lindsay conceded the killing of Woodbury, but claimed the defendant was under the influence of alcohol and noxious drugs, administered to him by persons unknown, for the purpose of stealing his money. The result was a bizarre episode of violence of which Hamilton had no memory and therefore was wholly incapable of forming specific intent to take the victim's life. Woodbury's death, although tragic, was neither deliberate nor premeditated and the defendant must be acquitted of the charge of first-degree murder.

The state's case-in-chief was short and direct with only nine witnesses called to testify. Two men described Hamilton's demeanor during the hours preceding the murder. Marshal Becker testified to the facts and circumstances leading up to the deadly confrontation, the scene in the hallway at the Platt Building and the shooting. His testimony about the murder was corroborated by eyewitness Douglass Allmond. Four witnesses testified about Hamilton's attempt to escape and his capture, and Dr. Smith testified about the wound that eventually caused Woodbury's death. The prosecution then rested its case.

The defense began its case by putting Hamilton on the witness stand. The defendant testified that on the night before the victim was killed, he was drunk and walking around town with a large amount of money. Apparently, some unidentified person or persons had been aware of this and slipped him knockout drops in order to steal his bankroll. Instead of making him unconscious, however, the drug had the opposite effect, and threw him into a rage, during which he unintentionally shot Woodbury. Later, he awakened in the Anacortes jail with absolutely no recollection of the incident. Attorney Lindsay called four witnesses to the stand to corroborate the defendant's story that he had been highly intoxicated, followed by three medical experts who testified about the effects of "knockout drops" (chloral hydrate) and hashish (Cannabis indica) on the nervous system. Instead of acting as a hypnotic, the experts theorized, the drug, when mixed with alcohol, acted as a stimulant and made him hallucinate. The defense then rested its case.

In rebuttal, Prosecutor Hurd paraded over a dozen witnesses to the stand, including several bartenders and some of the leading citizens of Anacortes, who testified about Hamilton's outrageous behavior during the 24 hours preceding Woodbury's murder. They all swore Hamilton did not appear to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs on the afternoon of the shooting. Marshal Becker had no explanation for Hamilton's irrational behavior, but swore he acted sober when arrested. Four physicians testified for the state, contradicting the defense's theory that a mixture of drugs and alcohol were responsible for the heinous crime. Closing arguments and the court's instructions to the jury followed.

The case went to the jury at 11:00 a.m. on Tuesday, November 14, 1899. At 5:30 p.m., after six hours of deliberation, the 12-man jury convicted Hamilton of first-degree murder which carried the mandatory sentence of death. Attorney Lindsay immediately filed a motion for a new trial, based primarily on Judge Houser's refusal to grant the defendant a change of venue. The defense maintained Hamilton did not receive a fair trial in Skagit County, owing to the prejudice of its citizenry and the presiding judge. On December 9, 1899, after hearing arguments, Judge Houser denied the motion and sentenced Hamilton to be hanged on Friday, February 9, 1900. Attorney Lindsay immediately gave Judge Houser notice of appealing the case to the Washington State Supreme Court. Meantime, Sheriff Wells made preparations for the execution by having a scaffold constructed in the courtyard of the Skagit County Courthouse. Hamilton's attorneys perfected the appeal, however, and he was granted a stay of execution. The scaffold was dismantled.

The New Trial

On November 19, 1900, the Washington State Supreme Court granted Hamilton a new trial based on judicial error. In two of Judge Houser's instructions to the jury, he injected the question of insanity, an issue that was not raised in the pleadings or by testimony in the case, which may have confused the jury. On February 25, 1901, Skagit County Superior Court Judge Hiram E. Hadley (1855-1929) granted Hamilton a change of venue to Whatcom County and the new trial was scheduled for May 1901.

The second trial of Alfred Hamilton commenced on Monday morning, May 20, 1901, in Whatcom County Superior Court before Judge Jeremiah Neterer. The state was represented by Prosecuting Attorney Maynard P. Hurd of Skagit County, his former deputy and now Lieutenant Governor, Henry W. McBride, and Prosecuting Attorney Albert E. Meade (1861-1913) of Whatcom County. Attorneys Lindsay and Wright of Seattle conducted Hamilton's defense. It took most of two days to impanel a jury and then the case proceeded rapidly. In most respects, it was a carbon copy of the first trial, but took much less time to accomplish.

At 11:40 a.m. on Thursday, May 23, both sides had rested their case. The prosecution had presented testimony from approximately 40 witnesses whereas the defense called only four: two medical experts, an associate, who claimed Hamilton had been highly intoxicated, and the defendant, who had no memory of the incident. Late that afternoon, the case went to the jury for deliberation and it took only 15 minutes to arrive at a decision -- guilty of murder in the first degree.

Sheriff William I. Brisbin had just returned to the courtroom after taking Hamilton to his jail cell in the basement of the Whatcom County Courthouse when the jury came back with its verdict. Hamilton displayed no emotion and acted uninterested as the court clerk read the judgment. Attorney Lindsay immediately filed a motion for a new trial, this time based on judicial error for allowing Lieutenant Governor McBride to participate in the case. Lindsay maintained it was a conflict of interest and his presence had unduly influenced the jury. There was also the remote possibility McBride might become the state governor, should the incumbent resign or die, leaving Hamilton little chance of being granted executive clemency.

On Monday, June 17, 1901, Judge Neterer denied Hamilton's motion for a new trial and sentenced him to be executed at the Whatcom County Courthouse on Friday, August 16, 1901. On July 25, Attorney Wright appeared before Judge Neterer and gave notice of appealing the case to the Washington State Supreme Court. The judge immediately signed another stay of execution for Hamilton until the case was adjudicated.

On August 15, 1901, Sheriff Brisbin received a tip that Hamilton's gang was planning to break him out of the Whatcom County Jail. He moved the prisoner to the King County Jail in Seattle for safekeeping. While there, King County Sheriff Edward Cudihee invited him to attend the hanging of Charles W. Nordstrom at the county courthouse on August 23, to learn how it was done. Both Sheriff Brisbin and Sheriff Wells also attended the hanging of William Alden Seaton at the King County Courthouse on January 3, 1902. Afterward Sheriff Wells purchased the soon-to-be-outlawed scaffold, considered one of the most complete and substantial ever built, for the bargain price of $15. (In 1901, the state legislature mandated that all executions take place at the Washington State Penitentiary.)

Hamilton's attorneys perfected his second appeal for new trial and filed it with the state Supreme Court in Olympia on September 24, 1901. The appeal was argued during the October session of the court, but a decision wasn't rendered until the following year. On February 18, 1902, the tribunal announced it had affirmed the judgment of the lower court that allowed Henry McBride to participate in the retrial of Hamilton. He had been an integral member of the prosecution team during Hamilton's first trial and the fact that he had become lieutenant governor of Washington state was legally of no consequence.

The Hanging

On Thursday, April 18, 1902, Sheriff Brisbin and Sheriff Wells took Hamilton from the King County Jail, where he had been held for the past year, to Whatcom County for sentencing. The next morning, Judge Neterer set Hamilton's execution for Friday, May 23, and signed his death warrant. The date was the first Friday following the expiration of the 30 days the law allowed a condemned man after receiving the death sentence.

Meanwhile, Sheriff Brisbin had received delivery of the scaffold from King County, courtesy of Sheriff Wells, and on Monday, May 19, set a team of carpenters to work erecting the scaffold for its last victim. The execution was scheduled to take place in the courtyard at the Whatcom County Courthouse (now Fouts Park), bordered by Ellsworth and Farragut Streets between G and H Streets. To insure privacy, the open courtyard was surrounded by a 16-foot-high board fence. Admission was by engraved invitation only and limited to 100 spectators, composed principally of sheriffs from other counties, police chiefs, physicians, and members of the press. The gallows and new rope had been thoroughly tested with sandbags and all was in readiness for execution day.

Attorneys Lindsay and Wright made a final attempt to save Hamilton's life, appealing to the governor's office for commutation of sentence to life imprisonment. Unfortunately for Hamilton, Washington State Governor John Rankin Rogers (1838-1901) had died of pneumonia on December 26, 1901 and Henry W. McBride had assumed the office. After two hotly-contested trials and two lengthy appeals to the state Supreme Court, the likelihood Governor McBride would grant the condemned prisoner executive clemency was nil. Therefore, it came as no surprise when he publicly refused to interfere in Hamilton's execution.

Shortly before 4:00 a.m. on Friday, May 23, 1902, Hamilton awakened, had two raw eggs and coffee for breakfast, and dressed himself in new set of clothes. When he began nervously pacing his cell, muttering and cursing, the jailhouse physician administered a grain of morphine to calm his nerves. At 5:45 a.m. Sheriff Brisbin entered the cell and read the death warrant to the condemned prisoner. This legality infuriated Hamilton who immediately let loose with string of invectives. Sheriff Brisbin led the death march from the jail cell to the gallows, followed by Hamilton, with Deputy Sheriff Andrew Land on his left side and Sheriff Wells of Skagit County on his right.

At the scaffold, he bounded up the steps, two at a time, and stood defiantly in the middle of the trapdoor facing the crowd. Sheriff Brisbin asked Hamilton if he had any last words and he replied in a loud voice: "No, I am here to die. Hurry up" ("Hamilton Executed"). Deputy Land secured straps around his body and pulled a black hood over his head, followed by the hangman's noose. A exactly 6:00 a.m., Sheriff Brisbin sprung the trap and Hamilton dropped through the platform to this death. After 16 minutes, three attending physicians pronounced him dead and deputies cut his body down. Immediately following the execution, Sheriff Brisbin was heartily congratulated by his colleagues for the precise manner in which everything was arranged and carried out.

Hamilton's body was taken to the Herbert S. Noice Undertaking Parlors on Dock Street in Bellingham. When no one came forward to claim the remains, Hamilton was placed in a pine box, taken to Bayview Cemetery and quietly buried in the potter's field. It had been the first legal execution in Whatcom County since 1858, when four marauding north-coast Indians were hanged by the United States Army at Fort Bellingham, and the last to occur in Washington outside the confines of the state penitentiary at Walla Walla.


Sources: Thomas P. Hastie, Illustrated History of Skagit and Snohomish Counties (Chicago: Interstate Publishing Co., 1906), 168-69; "Attorney D. M Woodbury," Skagit County Times (Sedro-Woolley), September 14, 1899, p. 3; "The Injured Man Dies," Anacortes Weekly American, September 14, 1899, p. 3; "Bound Over Without Bail," Ibid., September 21, 1899, p. 3;"On Trial for Murder," Ibid., November 19, 1899, p. 3; "Guilty as Charged," Ibid., November 16, 1899, p. 3; Wallie Funk, "For Local Lawyer, City of Destiny Took Unfortunate Meaning," Anacortes American, January 29, 1997, p. B-3; Wallie Funk, "Would Hamilton Swing for the 1899 Murder of a Lawyer?," Ibid.., February 19, 1997, p. A-8; Wallie Funk, "Murdered Hamilton Escapes Hangman's Noose, or Does He?," Ibid.., February 26, 1997, p. B-4; Wallie Funk, "Guilt Assured, the Noose Tightens," Ibid., March 5, 1997, p. A-5; "Wallie Funk, "The Final Chapter: 'I Am Here to Die. Hurry Up," Ibid.., March 12, 1997, p. A-5; "Pays Penalty: Hamilton Hanged in Whatcom," Ibid., May 23, 1902, p. 1; "Hamilton Executed," The Fairhaven Evening Herald, May 23, 1902, p. 1; "Fatally Wounded in Shooting Affray," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 8, 1899, p. 1; "An Attorney Fatally shot," The Seattle Star, September 8, 1899, p. 3; "Lynching Talk at Anacortes," Ibid., September 9, 1899, p. 2; "Hamilton's Victim Dies," Ibid., September 11, 1899, p. 1; "Murderer Hamilton," Ibid., August 16, 1901, p. 4; "Hawkins Must Be Hanged," Ibid., February 18, 1902, p. 4; "Hamilton Murder Trial," The Seattle Times, May 20, 1901, p. 2; "Objected to McBride," Ibid., May 21, 1901, p. 2; "The Hamilton Case," Ibid., May 23, 1901, p. 2; "Verdict Was Guilty," Ibid., May 24, 1901, p. 9; "Plans to Hang Hamilton," Ibid., July 16, 1901, p. 2; "Stay of Execution," Ibid., July 25, 1901, p. 5; "State Capital," Ibid., February 18, 1902, p. 4; "King County Courts," Ibid., February 19, 1902, p. 3; "Ready for Hanging," Ibid., February 17, 1902, p. 4; "Sold the Scaffold," Ibid., February 17, 1902, p. 7; "To Hang in May," Ibid., April 18, 1902, p. 4; "Erecting Scaffold," Ibid., May 19, 1902, p. 4; "He Tells His Story," Ibid., May 20, 1902, p. 8; "To Die Tomorrow," Ibid., May 22, 1902, p. 4; "Bid for Another Crime," Ibid., May 22, 1902, p. 6; "With Curses on His Lips, Alfred Hamilton Trips Lightly Up the Steps to Meet His Doom," Ibid., May 23, 1902, p. 1.

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