On March 30, 1900, George Webster (1871-1900) is hanged in the courtyard of the Spokane County Courthouse for the murder of Lise C. Aspland (1852-1897). This strange homicide, which took place at the Aspland homestead near Cheney (Spokane County) on May 6, 1897, is the subject of much controversy. Webster is convicted of first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory death sentence, but later two jurors repudiate their votes. Webster appeals to the Washington State Supreme Court for a new trial, but his conviction is affirmed. Before his execution, more than 6,000 people, including all the jurors from the trial and many prominent citizens, petition Governor John R. Rogers (1838-1901) for executive clemency, but he will decline to interfere. Webster is the first white man and the last person to be legally hanged by the authorities in Spokane County. In 1901, the Washington State Legislature will amend the capital punishment statute, requiring all executions to take place at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.
The Aspland Family and Their Visitor
Andrew Aspland (1840-1912) owned a homestead approximately four miles northwest of Cheney in Spokane County. He had immigrated to the United States from Sweden in 1877, became a naturalized citizen, and married Lise Christina Holm in 1882. In 1897, the Aspland family consisted of five members: Andrew, age 57, his wife Lise, age 44, twins John H. (1853-1968) and Ella May (1853-1945), age 13, and daughter Jennie C. (1885-1957), age 11.
George Webster, an itinerant laborer, age 25, had been working various jobs around Spokane County for about four years. He was born in Madison, Wisconsin, his parents were deceased, and he had been on his own since age 13. Webster had the reputation in Spokane County for being a for being a hard worker and skilled handyman. Although he liked to drink alcohol, he wasn’t known to be troublemaker.
On Wednesday, May 5, 1897, Webster was in Cheney and had been drinking in several saloons. At approximately 7:00 p.m., while Webster was still able to function, Constable Able Brown ordered him to leave the town. He departed in the company of Ira Arnold, the son of a local farmer, heading up the road toward Medical Lake. It was a dark and stormy night and Webster stopped by the Aspland farmhouse and asked to be put up for the night. The family was gathered in the kitchen and Webster chatted amiably with Asplands and offered to share his bottle of whiskey. Andrew needed a farm hand for a few weeks, knew Webster had a good reputation, and offered him work at 75 cents per day and board. At 11:00 p.m., Lise began preparing the family to retire for the night. Andrew, John, his son, and Webster would sleep in the only bedroom while Lise and her two daughters, Ella May and Jennie, would sleep on a bed in the kitchen.
A Shot Is Fired
Shortly after the lamp was extinguished, Webster complained of being too warm, got up and lowered the window sash. Then Webster said he needed a drink of water and Andrew told him there was a bucket of water on the porch in back of the kitchen. Upon leaving the room, Webster startled Ella May by touching her arm. When she cried out, Lise told him to leave the kitchen. Instead, he asked her if he might not stay in the bed with them for awhile. Lise ordered Webster out and he returned to the bedroom. A short time later, he left the bedroom, saying he wanted to take some medicine from a bottle and got a spoon from kitchen. As soon as he left, Lise closed and bolted the inside door. At approximately 2:30 a.m., Webster attempted to return to the kitchen again, but found the door locked. When he asked for his coat and hat, Lise told him to go back to bed; he could collect them in the morning. Webster went outside, around to the back porch and demanded his coat and hat, claiming he was returning to Cheney. Lise was in the act of passing the garments through the top section of the kitchen window on a broomstick when there was a single gunshot from outside.
The bullet went through a pane of glass at the bottom of the kitchen window and struck Lise in the lower abdomen. Awakened by the gunshot, Andrew and John rushed to the kitchen. Lise had managed to unlock the door and lay bleeding on the floor. She said Webster had fired the shot and implored Andrew to take the children to safety. Meanwhile, Webster wandered back into the house, asked Andrew who had been shooting and then returned to bed. Andrew told the children to stay in the kitchen with their mother and left to seek help from his closest neighbor, William C. Spence, who sent his son, George, for the doctor and a constable.
George Spence rushed to Cheney and notified Constable Abel Brown, owner of a livery stable, of the shooting. Brown roused Town Marshal John E. Corbett and Dr. Francis A. Pomeroy and together they headed to the Aspland farm in horse-drawn carriages. They arrived at approximately 5:00 a.m. and saw, through the bedroom window, Webster asleep on the bed. While Dr. Pomeroy attended to Lise, Brown and Corbett entered the bedroom and quickly handcuffed the suspect. When Webster was dragged off the bed, a .38 caliber revolver dropped onto the floor. The gun, along with two pint-bottles of whiskey, a bottle of tincture of cantharides (an aphrodisiac used in animal husbandry, also known as Spanish fly), and a jar of petroleum jelly, found in Webster’s possession, were seized as evidence. Webster was then led into the kitchen where Lise identified him as the assailant.
Dr. Pomeroy rushed Lise to Eastern State Mental Hospital in Medical Lake for emergency surgery. Meanwhile, Constable Brown and Marshal Corbett took Webster to Cheney and locked him away in the town jail. On Friday morning, May 7, news of the shooting spread rapidly and people gathered in the streets, talking about lynching Webster. But Constable Brown was not about to let that happen to his prisoner. He sneaked Webster out the back door of the jail into a waiting carriage and drove 18 miles to Spokane at full speed. Informed of the situation, Spokane County Sheriff Christopher C. Dempsey placed Webster in protective custody.
Dr. John M. Semple, the state hospital’s chief administrator, admitted Lise Aspland without delay and assisted Dr. Pomeroy in the surgery. The bullet had entered her lower abdomen, perforated her intestines in several places and lodged in her back. Although she had survived the operation, the physicians knew there was little hope of survival, as the wound hadn’t been treated for several hours and was infected. Spokane Prosecuting Attorney John A. Pierce, told of Lise’s condition, hastened to Medical Lake to obtain her sworn statement. She died of peritonitis at 10:42 p.m. on Friday night. On Saturday, May 8, Spokane County Coroner Edwin L. Kimball held an inquest at the hospital and the jury found that her death was caused by a gunshot wound to the abdomen for which George Webster was responsible.
On Monday, May 10, 1897, Prosecutor Pierce filed an information in Spokane County Superior Court, charging Webster with first-degree murder. Judge Leander H. Prather (1845-1921) appointed Del Cary Smith, a prominent Spokane attorney, to represent the indigent defendant. Webster was arraigned on Friday, May 14, and entered a plea of not guilty to the charge. When Judge Prather set the trial date for Wednesday, May 26, Smith argued that he had no time to prepare a defense for Webster. Judge Prather rescheduled the trial for the September court term.
The trial began on Wednesday, September 15, 1897, with jury selection, which took three days to complete. At 2:30 p.m. on Friday, September 17, a jury of 12 men was impaneled and sworn in and court was recessed for the week. On Monday morning, Prosecutor Pierce made his opening statement, which was brief and concise, outlining the evidence in the case against the defendant. Defense Attorney Smith reserved his opening statement until later in the trial.
Of the all witnesses for the prosecution, the most damaging testimony came from the Aspland family who was present when Lise was wounded. They had all heard the gunshot but no one could say who pulled the trigger except Lise who declared it had been Webster. Andrew testified about the defendant’s erratic behavior during the night and the girls about his improper advances. Marshal Corbett and Constable Brown testified that when Lise identified Webster as her assailant, he admitted: "Yes, I shot you. I don’t know why I did it. I am very sorry and hope you will get well" ("Webster Trial," Spokane Daily Chronicle, September 21, 1897, p. 1).
The most dramatic moment came when Lise’s dying declaration was read aloud for the jury. She mentioned the presence of a stranger outside the house with Webster when he fired the shot through the window. The prosecution rested its case at 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, September 22.
After the noon recess, Attorney Smith opened Webster’s defense with a brief statement and testimony from 10 witnesses from Spokane County to show the defendant’s good character and reputation. Lastly, George Webster took the stand and testified in his own defense. He admitted to practically everything except committing the crime and his subsequent admission of guilt. Webster claimed he had no memory of what happened between the time he went to bed and when he was arrested in the morning. According to his recollection, Lise Aspland said: “He is the man who shot me, but I don’t think he meant to do it,” to which he answered: “If I did, I don’t remember it. But I’m sorry if I did it” (“To the Jury,” Spokane Daily Chronicle, September 23, 1897, p. 1). The defense rested it case late Wednesday afternoon and court was adjourned.
All day Thursday and half of Friday were taken up by lengthy closing arguments. The prosecution stated Webster’s motive for the crime was his intended debauchery of the Aspland women and revenge against Lise for foiling his plan. The defense argued Webster had been incapacitated by a mixture of drugs and alcohol and had been afflicted with temporary amnesia. No proof had been presented that the defendant had any such designs on the Aspland women. The prosecution had failed to prove intent, necessary to sustain a conviction of first-degree murder. Furthermore, there was the distinct possibility Lise had been shot by the unknown stranger.
The trial concluded on Friday, September 24, and the case went to the jury at 3:00 p.m. At 9:00 p.m. on Saturday, after being sequestered for 30 hours, the jury foreman, Charles Thomas, notified the bailiff they had reached a verdict. Judge Prather reconvened the court and his clerk announced the jury found Webster guilty of first-degree murder.
Backtracking and Moving Toward Execution
But after the verdict, the court was presented with a remarkable written statement from 72-year-old Charles Thomas and another juror, Ruben J. Frazier, age 64. “This is to certify that we, the undersigned jurors in and for Spokane County, Washington, by our physical health and weakness of body and strain of mind, can not bear the strain any longer, so by reason of the above, we unite with the majority in the verdict of guilty” (“Webster Is Guilty,” Spokane Daily Chronicle, September 27, 1897, p. 1). Once during the deliberations, the jurors voted unanimously to convict the defendant of second-degree murder, but two of the ballots had been filled out incorrectly and the vote was nullified. When they learned that 20-years imprisonment was the maximum sentence for second-degree murder, some of the jurors, believing that penalty insubstantial, changed their minds and voted for the death penalty. Ultimately, those jurors managed to convince the others to vote for a first-degree murder verdict.
Attorney Smith filed motions for a new trial and an arrest of judgment based on judicial error and jury misconduct. On Monday, November 15, 1897, Judge Prather heard Smith argue that jurors Thomas and Frazier had been coerced into voting for the death penalty and it was not a proper verdict. Prosecutor Pierce countered with an affidavit signed by nine jurors that Thomas and Frazier did so of their own free will. After four hours of arguments, Judge Prather denied the defense motion. On Tuesday, he sentenced Webster to be “hanged by the neck till dead” and signed the death warrant, setting Friday, February 4, 1898, as the execution date. Attorney Smith notified the court of his intention to appeal the verdict to the Washington State Supreme Court and the execution was stayed until the appeal process had run its course.
On Tuesday, April 18, 1899, the state Supreme Court affirmed Webster’s conviction and the judgment of the Spokane County Superior Court. An application for a rehearing was subsequently denied by the supreme court on June 8, 1899. By this time, Webster had been in jail for more than two years and it was questionable whether his supporters could raise the money necessary to appeal the case to the United States Supreme Court in Washington D.C.
On Saturday, June 17, 1899, Judge Prather set Webster’s execution date for Friday, July 28, 1899, at the Spokane County Courthouse. The death warrant was drawn up by the prosecutor’s office, signed by Judge Prather on Monday and delivered to Sheriff Robert D. Speck. Meanwhile, Webster’s attorneys and supporters had been gathering signatures in support of a petition for executive clemency.
Questions and Reconsiderations
On Wednesday, July 12, 1899, Attorney James E. Fenton, who had been assisting in Webster’s defense, traveled to Olympia and presented Governor John R. Rogers with the petition, signed by more than 6,000 Spokane citizens, asking for a commutation of the sentence to life imprisonment. Governor Rogers listened to Attorney Fenton’s appeal for clemency on Friday, considered it over the weekend, and on Tuesday, July 18, announced he had decided not to interfere with the judgments of the courts.
With just 10 days to go before the hanging, Sheriff Speck ordered the scaffold be taken out of storage and erected in the enclosed yard between the courthouse and the jail. It had originally been constructed in 1897 from plans drawn by the Spokane County Surveyor and stood 15-feet high and 10-feet square. There were 13 steps leading to the platform, which had a three-foot-square trap in the middle. The trapdoor had a 50-pound iron weight attached underneath and was sprung by pulling a single lever. It took Sheriff Speck’s deputies a week to have the gallows ready, which included testing a new five-inch hemp rope, special-ordered through the Holley, Mason, Marks & Company hardware store in Spokane.
Meanwhile, Webster’s attorneys were trying to obtain another stay of execution. On Tuesday, July 25, Fenton filed notice of appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court with U.S. District Court Judge Cornelius H Hanford (1849-1926) in Seattle, and applied for a writ of habeas corpus to stop the hanging. Judge Hanford granted the right to appeal but denied the application for a writ of habeas corpus. On Thursday, July 27, Smith and Fenton asked Judge Prather for a stay of execution, which was granted. He issued an order to Sheriff Speck to hold the death warrant in abeyance until further notice from the court. Due to lack of money, however, Webster’s attorneys had been unable to perfect the appeal and on January 10, 1900, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an order of dismissal.
On Tuesday, February 20, 1900, Judge Prather rescheduled Webster’s execution for Friday, March 30, between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. Meantime, Webster’s attorneys had been circulating a second petition for executive clemency, signed by over 100 prominent Spokane businessmen and lawyers, claiming there was new evidence to support the contention that he did not shoot Lise Aspland.
And there was a third clemency petition to the governor, signed by hundreds of Spokane County citizens, including all the jurors from the trial. After receiving the petitions and meeting with Smith and Fenton, Governor Rogers referred the entire matter to Judge Prather and Spokane County Superior Court Judge James Z. Moore to examine. The governor said he would only consider commutation of sentence if the new evidence raised reasonable doubt about Webster’s guilt. His conviction had already been affirmed by the state Supreme Court and the jury was not permitted to impeach its own verdict.
The attorneys who signed the petition did so because they believed there was no evidence of any premeditation. Webster’s supporters were a mix of citizens philosophically opposed capital punishment and those who believed there was reasonable doubt that he intended commit murder. Twenty years imprisonment seemed a fair compromise to the death penalty.
On Monday, March 26, 1900, Judges Prather and Moore convened a hearing in the Spokane County Courthouse which lasted for three days. On Wednesday, March 28, the jurists sent a telegram to Governor Rogers stating no new facts had been presented and they could find nothing to raise reasonable doubt that Webster fired the fatal bullet. The case was officially closed and prisoner’s fate sealed.
The area where the scaffold stood, in the enclosed yard between the courthouse and the jail, had been covered with a large awning, concealing it from public view. The newly elected Spokane County Sheriff, Charles A. Cole, decided to make the hanging as private as possible with admission by engraved invitation only. Attendance was limited to 200 people, principally composed of police chiefs and officials from other counties, physicians, and members of the press. The new rope, handmade in Missouri, had been thoroughly tested and all was in readiness for execution day.
Webster spent most his last day, Thursday, closeted with his two spiritual advisors: the Very Reverend Robert Perine, dean of All Saints Episcopal Cathedral, and Captain John G. McClelland of the Volunteers of America. He also gave interviews to newspaper reporters, during which he questioned his murder conviction and the need be hanged for a crime he didn’t remember. Everyone waited nervously for a last-minute reprieve from the governor’s office, which never came. Governor Rogers had already made his position clear and decided not to interfere with the execution.
On Friday morning, March 30, 1900, Webster arose at 7:00 a.m., had a simple breakfast of eggs, toast, and coffee, and then met with his spiritual advisors. Shortly after 9:00 a.m., Sheriff Cole entered his cell and read him the lengthy death sentence. Afterward, Webster visited with a number of acquaintances. His last visitor was Attorney Del Cary Smith who bade Webster farewell as he left the cell.
At 11:00 a.m. Sheriff Cole led the condemned prisoner, flanked by Deputy Sheriffs Francis K. Pugh and Henry Desgranges, from the jailhouse, across the courtyard, to the gallows. Reverend Parine and Captain McClelland followed behind. The group mounted the platform and Sheriff Cole asked Webster if he had any last words. He had nothing to say except “Goodbye.” As Reverend Perine prayed aloud, Webster was positioned upon the trap and the deputies fastened leather belts around his torso, holding his arms and wrists close to his body, and around his legs and ankles. A black hood was pulled over his head, followed by the hangman’s noose. Deputy Pugh carefully adjusted the large knot just in front Webster’s left ear where it would instantly break his neck when he fell. Then Sheriff Cole pulled the lever, releasing the trapdoor and dropping Webster to his death. His body was taken down 13 minutes later and three Spokane physicians, Dr. Benjamin R. Freeman Jr., Dr. Harry S. Martin, and Dr. D. Laurence Smith pronounced him dead.
Webster’s body taken to the Gilman & Company Undertaking Parlors, 308 Riverside Avenue, and prepared for burial. A simple funeral service was held in the Gilman chapel at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, March 31, 1900, officiated by Reverend Perine. Webster was buried in an unmarked grave at Greenwood Cemetery (now Greenwood Memorial Terrace), 211 N Government Way, in Spokane.
The Aspland Family
The Aspland family remained on the homestead, but isolated themselves from the community. Andrew became demented and was committed at Eastern State Mental Hospital in Medical Lake. He died on November 24, 1912, at age 72 and was buried at Fairview Cemetery, 217 3rd Street, in Cheney. In October 1913, residents of Cheney filed a civil complaint in Spokane County Superior Court, questioning the sanity of Ella May and Jennie Aspland. They were taken to Spokane for psychological evaluation by an insanity commission and afterward involuntarily committed at Eastern State Mental Hospital.
On February 3, 1917, John Aspland was committed at Eastern State Hospital by Spokane Superior Court Judge David W. Hurn (1856-1924) following a hearing before an insanity commission. The 1920 and 1930 U.S. Census showed all three siblings as inmates in the institution at the Medical Lake. Ella May, age 61, died at Eastern State Hospital on April 1, 1945, and was buried at Fairview Cemetery next to her father. Jennie, age 72, died at Eastern State Hospital on May 10, 1957, and was buried in the hospital’s cemetery. In 1959, John was placed in the Nicley Rest Home, 2007 W Sinto Avenue in Spokane. He died at Coskin’s Nursing Home, 220 Boone Avenue on December 29, 1968, at age 85, and was buried at Fairmount Cemetery (now Fairmount Memorial Park), 5200 W Wellesley Avenue in Spokane. The Asplands had no known living relatives in the United States.
Capital Punishment in Washington
The first capital punishment statute, enacted by the Washington State Territorial Legislature in 1854, called for the mandatory sentence of death for persons convicted of first-degree murder. The first person to be legally executed in Spokane County was Charles Brooks, a 62-year-old African American, who was hanged on September 6, 1892, for shooting his estranged wife, Christine, in downtown Spokane on July 5, 1891.
The second person was Gin Pong, age 38, a Chinese immigrant, who was hanged on April 30, 1897, for hacking to death fellow countryman Lee Tung with a hatchet on March 14, 1896. George Webster was the third and the last prisoner to be publicly executed by the authorities in Spokane County.
In 1901, the Washington State Legislature amended the capital punishment statute, requiring that all executions take place at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.