Into the 1930s, county sheriffs in Missouri carried out death sentences in their jurisdictions by hanging.
The executions were public spectacles that often drew crowds.
So it was for Harry Vaughan, George Ryan and Edward Raymond, who were convicted of killing the prison gatekeeper while escaping from the Missouri State Penitentiary in November of 1905.
All three were hanged to death on June 27, 1907, on gallows erected outside the Cole County Jail in Jefferson City.
Accompanying the condemned men through their final hours, up to their last moments and even to their place of burial were Father Henry Geisert, Catholic chaplain at the prison and associate pastor of St. Peter Parish, and Father Joseph Selinger, the pastor of St. Peter Parish.
The escapees had taken the lives of three men in the course of their escape — two who died immediately, another who died later from his wounds.
Fr. Geisert had served as spiritual advisor to the three condemned men during their 19 months in prison.
The Monday before the execution, he presented a petition, signed by several members of the jury that had convicted the men, asking the governor to commute Mr. Ryan’s death sentence to life in prison.
The petitioners pointed out that Mr. Ryan, youngest of the three defendants, had done none of the shooting but was deemed an accomplice to the deadly crime and convicted and sentenced with the other two.
The governor denied the request for clemency.
With help from Fr. Geisert, each of the three condemned men underwent spiritual conversions in the time leading up to their executions.
“Harry Vaughan, the leader of the plot and one of the most daring of the trio, is a different man,” the Jefferson City Tribune reported. “He has accepted the Catholic religion and spends nearly all his time on his knees praying.”
“The three men have all embraced the Catholic religion and were baptized by Father Geisert, who has been their spiritual advisor since their conviction,” the Tribune reported.
The Cole County Democrat noted that Ryan and Raymond had professed Catholicism “a month or two previously.”
Mr. Vaughan was baptized a day and a half before his execution.
“I never tried to be anything else but a criminal because I was not taught there was anything to the contrary,” he told a reporter for the Tribune that day.
“But life as a criminal is a failure as are all men who deliberately set out by making a living by crime.”
Mr. Ryan told a reporter that he felt much better off than the fourth man who was involved in the failed escape, who was killed without time to prepare to meet God.
After the three condemned men had breakfast in the Cole County Jail the morning of the execution, Fathers Geisert and Selinger administered the Sacrament of Confession to each and gave the men Holy Communion.
Ryan and Raymond appeared intensely interested as the priests prayed for the salvation of the souls of each of the men, according to the Cole County Democrat.
“Vaughn was deeply afflicted by the words of the minister and at times sobbed bitterly, but none of them spoke,” the paper noted.
The priests then accompanied the men, along with the sheriff, to the yard outside the courthouse, ascended the platform ahead of them, and stood with them until the end.
A print of an antique photo acquired in a Jefferson City antique store about 15 years ago shows the three men, heads covered, awaiting death, with the priests standing near them.
“For about a minute all stood motionless and the only sound was that of the prayer of the priest,” the Republican Review newspaper in Jefferson City reported.
Immediately after the prayers ended, the death sentences were carried out.
The Tribune reported later that day that Fr. Geisert had claimed the deceased men’s earthly remains and hired an undertaker to prepare them for burial.
Years after moving on from his role as chaplain, the priest spoke to parishioners in Colorado about what’s needed to keep young men and women from committing the crimes that land them in prison or worse.
“What we need in life is not men who are good because they can’t be bad, but men who are good because they won’t be bad,” he was quoted as saying in in the Dec. 31, 1925, edition of the Colorado Springs Sunday Gazette and Telegraph.
The Missouri General Assembly abolished county hangings in 1934 and reassigned the responsibility of executions to the Missouri Department of Corrections.
Subsequently, more than 50 people were executed in the gas chamber that still stands at the old penitentiary in Jefferson City.
The state now carries out executions at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre.