James McLean was hung twice

HOLLAND LAND OFFICE MUSEUM PHOTOGRAPHThe Genesee County gibbet located behind the old county jail is shown. It is a successor to the one used to hang James McLean. The gibbet pictured is on display at the Holland Land Office Museum.

It seemed only fitting being the week of Halloween to share one of the darker stories from Genesee County’s history, one that goes back all the way to the earliest days of the county.

The first public execution in the county’s history did not actually take place within its modern borders, but in Caledonia. However, in 1807 all of that area fell within the jurisdiction of Genesee County.

This execution would not go entirely to plan and would go down in history and legend as the “double hanging” of James McLean.

The unassuming events that led to the hanging of James McLean began on March 16, 1807.

During that spring, workmen had been busy laying out a road in Caledonia, which was then known as Duncan McColls Road, but is today Graney Road. McLean lived on property near where the roadwork was commencing, and soon began to argue with the workmen over a perceived defacing of his property.

McLean claimed that a tree on his property had been cut down by a workman, William Orr, during the project. A heated argument ensued, and in a rage McLean struck down Orr with two swings of an ax.

Another man, Archibald McLaughlin, attempted to come to Orr’s aid as he lay on the ground, and accosted McLean for what he had done. This only enraged McLean further, and he then attacked McLaughlin and killed him too with the ax.

Word soon spread through the small community of McLean’s dastardly deed, as it was witnessed by Donald McColl whose family farm was very near the scene, so McLean fled into the surrounding wilderness hoping to avoid capture. He was on the lam for nearly three weeks before his captured by members of the local militia in a tavern near Canandaigua.

James McLean was then brought to Batavia to await trial.

The trial for Orr’s murder would begin in June 1807, but McLean was not charged for the murder of Archibald McLaughlin. He would be the first person tried for murder in the new county courthouse built in 1803.

The trial was presided over by Judge Daniel D. Tompkins. McLean was afforded council, as he was not of the landowning class.

His attorney “Judge” Nathaniel Howell demanded that his client be tried by a jury of his peers. The jury was changed from entirely freeholders, landowners, to half and half squatters.

Even with this change in jury composition, the verdict still came back guilty. The sentence was death by hanging.

A gibbet was constructed on the spot along Batavia’s Genesee Street, Main Street today, in the approximate location of Jackson Square, where the execution was to take place. The news of the hanging drew a large crowd, probably into the hundreds, from Batavia and the surrounding area.

However, the hanging would not turn out to be normal for that kind of event. After McLean was readied for the rope, he was hoisted into the air, yet, before the sentence could be fully carried out the rope snapped, dropping McLean back to the ground.

After some debate, a second stronger rope was then fetched and the process was done again, but this time with success, ending the life of James McLean.

The interruption in the execution led to a very interesting legend to arise around James McLean. It was said that upon the failure of his first hanging that he stated, “As I killed two men, I deserve to be two hangings.”

This legend has lived on even though he was only tried for one killing. As such, this part is probably left to folklore.

Ryan Duffy is executive director of the Holland Land Office Museum in Batavia. His “History with the HLOM” column appears twice a month in The Daily News.

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