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But for some reason — maybe somebody smelled a rat? — the court never got around to declaring him not guilty on that basis. He just stayed there, in the Josephine County jail. Deputies had to feed him, presumably some sort of liquid diet. Deputies also had to help him with other personal-care matters. It’s not clear how they did this, since they didn’t share the details with the newspapers; but most likely it involved some form of diaper that had to be changed several times a day, as with a baby.
A year slipped by, and most of another one. The sheriff tried at least once to get rid of the huge, bearded baby in his jailhouse; but his requests to get Fiester transferred to the Oregon State Hospital (then called the Oregon Insane Asylum) went nowhere. Most likely Fiester’s lawyer’s well-meaning attempts to keep his client out of court were the source of the trouble.
In any case, 515 days went by with Fiester apparently catatonic. Then, on May 10, 1897, two of Fiester’s sons, 26-year-old William and 18-year-old John, were caught burgling a smokehouse to steal bacon, and lodged in the jail with their “catatonic” father. William was set up in the room with his father, and several other jail occupants heard them whispering together, late in the night.
The next morning, the deputy in charge of feeding Fiester walked in with a plate of food and set it down on the table next to him.
“You can eat that, or let it alone,” he told Fiester. “I will never feed you again.”
He walked out. And upon his return an hour or so later, the plate was empty.
“Old man, you have played your game well,” the deputy told Fiester.
“Yes,” said Fiester — the first words he’d spoken out loud in nearly two years — “but it has been hard.”
On the appointed morning, Sheriff Joseph G. Hiatt found Fiester once again lying on his cot as if dead. He could not be roused; his eyes rolled back in his head, and he seemed to be having trouble breathing. His gasping and rattling sounded so believable that the sheriff postponed the hanging, hoping that he’d die of his own accord before too long and no one would have to burden his conscience with the serving of a death sentence upon him.
But by 1 p.m., nothing had changed, so the sheriff had the still-unresponsive Fiester strapped to a board and hauled to the gallows, where — still unresponsive, and apparently unconscious — he was hanged without incident.
It may have been the only time in Oregon history that an unconscious man was hanged. But, of course, that only goes if he really was unconscious. After his 515-day charade, the sheriff didn’t believe he really was, and apparently neither did anyone else.