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A Hanging in Detroit

Stephen Gifford Simmons and the Last Execution under Michigan Law

David G. Chardavoyne

Award Winner

By WSU Faculty, American History, Legal History, Michigan

Great Lakes Books Series

Paperback
Published: July 2003
ISBN: 9780814331330
Pages: 264 Size: 6x9 Illustrations: 11
$26.95
Hardback
Published: July 2003
ISBN: 9780814331323
Pages: 264 Size: 6x9 Illustrations: 11
$44.95
eBOOK
Published: July 2003
ISBN: 9780814337394
Review

This benchmark study of the early law-in-court history of Michigan is a must-read for all sides on the question of restoring capital punishment in the state.

— Avern Cohn

On September 24, 1830, Stephen G. Simmons, a fifty-year-old tavern keeper and farmer, was hanged in Detroit for murdering his wife, Levana Simmons, in a drunken, jealous rage. Michigan executed only two people during the fifty-year period, from 1796 to 1846, when the death penalty was legal within its boundaries. Simmons was the second and last person to be executed under Michigan law. In A Hanging in Detroit David G. Chardavoyne vividly evokes not only the crime, trial, and execution of Simmons, but also the setting and players of the drama, social and legal customs of the times, and the controversy that arose because of the affair. Chardavoyne illuminates his account of this important moment in Michigan's history with many little-known facts, creating a study that is at once an engrossing story and the first historical examination of the event that helped bring about the abolition of the death penalty in Michigan.

Simmons execution came at a time when Michigan had begun to change from a sparsely populated wilderness to a thriving agricultural center, and Detroit from a small military outpost to a metropolis founded on trade, manufacturing, and an influx of immigrants and other settlers. The hanging was a defining moment during this period of dramatic social change. Thousands of spectators crowded into Detroit expecting to see a thrilling public execution. Many of those spectators, however, left deeply disturbed by the spectacle they had witnessed. Chardavoyne, a lawyer, probes the unsettling incident which sparked a profound shift in attitudes toward capital punishment in Michigan, examining along the way such mysteries as why Simmons was hanged for his crime when other contemporary killers were hardly punished at all. A Hanging in Detroit will fascinate legal historians and lay readers alike with its incisive look into Great Lakes regional history and crime and punishment in Michigan.

David G. Chardavoyne is an attorney with his own practice and an adjunct professor at Wayne State University and University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. He is the author of Michigan Nonstandard Jury Instructions (West Publishing, 1997).

A Hanging in Detroit is a monument of scholarship, historical detective work, and good writing which presents this historic event in the context of its time. Consequently, we are given to see more clearly what the people of the time, and the actors involved, probably thought about it.

– Eugene Wanger, Michigan attorney

A Hanging in Detroit by David G. Chardavoyne vividly evokes not only the crime, trial, and execution of Simmons, but also the setting and players of the drama, social and lefal customs of the times, and the controversy that arose because of the affair. Chardavoyne illuminates his account of this important moment in Michigan's history with many little-known facts, creating a study that is at once an engrossing story and the first historical examination of the event that helped bring about the abolition of the death penalty in Michigan.

– The Detroit Legal News and Oakland County Legal News

A Hanging in Detroit is thoughtfully told and impressively documented. Chardavoyne's book, with its copious 35 pages of notes, 10-page bibliography, and thorough index, supplied me with enough detail about the last execution in Michigan and the subsequent abolition movement to answer most of my questions, and inform me in the struggle against any new efforts to bring capital punishment to Michigan, as is sure to happen the next time a murder of a white police officer, child, or pregnant woman is committed.

– Julie Herrada, Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty

Chardavoyne has created a very readable book on an obscure yet important event in Michigan history. Solid research and a straightforward writing style that is free of a lot of legal jargon successfully debates the issue of capital punishment in the nineteenth century.

– David Lee Poremba, Manager of the Burton Historical Collection and editor of <a href="http://wsupress.wayne.edu/books/240/Detroit-in-Its-World-Setting">Detroit in Its World Setting: A Three Hundred Year Chronology, 1701-2001</a>

This benchmark study of the early law-in-court history of Michigan is a must-read for all sides on the question of restoring capital punishment in the state.

– Avern Cohn, District Judge, United States District Court

  • 2003 Michigan Notable Book Awards - Result: 1 of 20 selected annually