Murderer avoided gallows by faking a 2-year coma

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By Finn J.D. John
March 4, 2018

CHARLES FIESTER REALLY, really didn’t want to die.

Fair enough; most of us don’t. His wife, Nancy, hadn’t wanted to die either; but she’d been trying to leave their 30-year marriage and had taken up with another man, a Mr. Mudd. And, well, one thing had led to another and the next thing anyone knew Fiester was dragging her by the hair to a mud puddle and drowning her in it, while their three youngest children looked on in horror.

As a result, on Sept. 30, 1895, he found himself facing a jury in a Josephine County court. And those jurors weren’t turning out to be particularly favorably disposed toward him.

His attorney had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. The problem for Fiester was, this was a few years before the great deluge of “temporary insanity” pleas in “unwritten law” murders, and insanity pleas were still very hard to pull off. For a man who’s never shown much history of insanity, it was a near-impossibility.

Fiester did have a history of something else, though, something kind of like insanity — but it was something that wasn’t helping at all with his case: an anger problem.

He and Nancy had been married 30 years before, when he was around 22 and she a middle-school-age waif of 12 or 13. Since that time, she’d borne him 10 children, who now ranged in age from 6 to 28. Coworkers and acquaintances knew Fiester as a soft-spoken, stoop-shouldered man with a reputation for being a reliable, hard worker, a former officer with the Salem Police Department in the early years before he moved with his family to Kerby and Merlin.

But close neighbors knew better. And the prosecution had talked to those neighbors, and now they were appearing in court testifying to all the times Nancy had turned up at their houses with bruises and injuries and other evidence of his violent temper.

Then, too, the Fiester family was still a little notorious after the events of the previous year, when a Lebanon man had been shot in a fight over Fiester’s 21-year-old daughter Jessie “Jet” Black. Jet and her husband, Sam Black, were separated, and apparently Jet Black was seeing a little too much of a man named Jesse Rice for Sam’s taste. On the evening of Oct. 3, 1893, Sam unexpectedly showed up at his estranged wife’s residence and, finding Jesse Rice there, shot him dead.

Two love triangles turned deadly, in the same family, within the space of a year. Sheer coincidence, of course; but it wasn’t a good look.

Finally, the lawyers wrapped up their closing statements, and the jury took just 40 minutes coming to a verdict: Guilty of first-degree murder.

FIESTER WASN'T TOO worried at first. He seemed pretty sure that he would be able to get the Supreme Court to overturn the conviction or commute it into a prison sentence.

Sure enough, a few days before his scheduled execution date, the Supreme Court issued a stay of execution to buy it a little time to review his claim of insanity. And it was just after this that Fiester abruptly went into a catatonic state. He lay there on his bunk, neither speaking nor responding to anyone around him, staring straight at the ceiling, all day. And all the next day. And the next.

The psychologist sent in by the court proclaimed him insane. That being the case, of course, he could hardly be executed.

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An engraving of convicted murderer Charles Fiester, published in the Portland Morning Oregonian on June 11, 1898, the day after his hanging. (Image: UO Libraries)

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.”

FIESTER'S INSANITY HAVING been exposed as a ruse, his case was reactivated, and a few months later, on April 21, 1898, he was once again sentenced to hang, the event scheduled to take place on June 10.

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.

(Sources: Goeres-Gardner, Diane. Necktie Parties: Legal Executions in Oregon 1851-1905. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 2005; Salem Capital Journal, 20 May 1895; Portland Oregonian, 10 Jun 1898)

TAGS: #JosephineCounty #Kerby #CharlesFiester #DomesticAbuse #InsanityPlea #Jealousy #Hanging #Execution #UnwrittenLaw #BadLove #Catatonic #ConArtists


Background photo of Crater Lake in wintertime as seen from the rim was made by WolfmanSF in 2012. (Via WikiMedia Commons, cc/by/SA)
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