The Hanging of William Carr (lost execution footage of American child murderer; 1897)
On 17th December 1897, William Carr, a farm labourer who was convicted of murdering his three-year-old daughter Belle, was executed via hanging at the Clay Count Court House in Liberty, Missouri. The hanging made a morbid piece of media history, as it became the first legitimate execution to be filmed, with the footage used for the documentary film The Hanging of William Carr.
William Carr was a 37-year-old farm labourer residing in Liberty, Missouri with his second wife Susan, five-year-old daughter Mae, three-year-old daughter Belle, and baby son. Throughout Belle's short life, she was the subject of hatred from both her biological father and stepmother, having lost her biological mother two years prior. In his interrogation, Carr revealed he and stepmother Susan had found Belle "very peculiar", as she had fought with other children, could not get on with her baby brother, but maintained close relationships with adults including her grandfather. Neighbours had also accused them of abusing Belle; this likely stemmed from Susan being "brutal" towards the young girl. Eventually, on 13th October 1897, Susan could no longer tolerate Belle; after an attempt to get Belle a place in the Sisters of Charity in Kansas City came to nothing, she demanded that William dispose of the girl or she would leave him. William complied, his initial plan focusing on travelling to Kansas City, where he would give Belle away to anyone who wanted her.
Following a long walk, which involved Carr carrying an exhausted Belle partway, the father claimed his scheme changed when he reached the Missouri River near Randolph. His original plan to drown Belle was to throw her into a creek feeding into the river. However, he discovered said creek had dried up. Therefore, using a flat stone attached to a rope acting as a slip-noose, he tightly tied it onto his daughter's breast and then picked her up. Despite Belle desperately pleading to her father to be let go, Carr callously threw the young girl into the river. Upon the initial splash, Belle never arose to the surface, the stone proving heavy enough to drag her underwater. Following the murder, Carr took a train back to Liberty. Satisfied he had gotten away without any witnesses present, he was also ecstatic that he had appeased his wife by informing her she had given Belle to "some movers", and showing no regrets for what he had actually done.
Belle's body was later discovered on a sandbar in the Missouri River. After at least ten days of investigation, police eventually arrested Carr at his home on 25th October, taking him to Kansas City so as to avoid a possible lynching in Liberty. During the first two interrogations held at Chief Hayes' office, Carr was uncooperative. However, Hayes and his officers refused to release him, keeping him behind bars for another day until he confessed. He did so on the third interrogation, describing the murder in great detail and thus enabling a St. Louis Post-Dispatch artist who listened in to create a sketch of the murder, which was later published in the newspaper's 17th December issue. Carr admitted he had no remorse over his actions, his only motivation with the confession being to avoid having his wife be implicated for the murder. Grinning, he said to interrogators "It's off my mind now. I'm glad my wife is free of it." Having been transferred back to Liberty, Carr's trial began on 16th November, with him assigned Judge James M. Sandusky as his attorney. He was quickly convicted for murder and sentenced to death via hanging, to be scheduled on 17th December 1897.
The Hanging of William Carr
Carr revelled in his new-found infamy. He received numerous calls while incarcerated in Kansas City, the 2nd November 1897 issue of Kansas City Journal even suggesting some had treated him akin to a hero. The case attracted the attention of filmmaker Frederick Guth, a manager of the American Phonographic Company's Kansas City branch. APC had earlier filmed via phonograph a reproduction of Carr confessing to the murder, ending with him laughing and demanding payment for retelling the story. It made its premiere on 6th November. An old woman claimed the voice echoed someone who had given "an elocutionary piece at a church entertainment." Guth and cameraman Percy Arnet wanted to go a step further, by filming the execution itself. Guth received permission to film the event, housing his equipment near the execution site of Clay County Court House and recording the occasion via a hole in the fence enclosing the gallows.
By 2nd November, Carr's well-being significantly declined. No longer was he jovial, with observers believing he was beginning to realise the seriousness of his predicament. He began to suffer poor sleeping patterns, and the loneliness once he was transferred back from Kansas City to Liberty also impacted his mood. Susan seldom was allowed to visit him, and she was unable to gift him food as Sheriff J.H. Hymer was concerned it might be laced with poison. A week before his execution, Carr attempted to commit suicide by ingesting pounded glass. This attempt failed, and following a restless night, Carr began his final day by requesting his wife take care of his body, and started to break down as Bible excerpts were read to him and a hymn was sung. Carr had apparently converted to Christianity a day before his hanging. Sheriff Hymer proceeded over the execution; he was concerned that Carr's execution plus others that were to occur shortly afterwards might be impacted by a growing crowd eager to see the child murderer's hanging. Around 800 were present; many attempted to gain entry into the gallows yard, with some trying break down the barricade while others shouted at and even attempted to bribe the Sheriff.
The Sheriff, aiming to achieve a clean execution, asked Carr if he was ready. The latter responded that he was, prompting Hymer to commence the hanging at 10:34 am. Two minutes later, Carr passed away, his neck having been broken upon being dropped. Some of the riotous crowd were outraged, believing the execution occurred too quickly, while others were excitedly attempting to barge in and gain a closer look of Carr's body to determine if he was really dead. The crowd's "disgraceful" behaviour forced the Sheriff and his deputies to intervene and order against any further violence. Some broke their way in, but the crowd would soon exit the vicinity once witnessing Carr's lifeless body swinging. He was later buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in the Old Crowley Cemetery. Following the execution of her husband, Susan became an outcast, despised by many within Liberty who believed she too had a direct role in Belle's murder and was saved only by her husband's manipulation of events. Meanwhile, Carr's other daughter Mae was put up for adoption a few days before her father's hanging. The hanging was filmed by Guth, because Arnet had backed out at the last minute since he refused to see the execution itself. Around 1,800 pictures were taken in quick succession. According to The Los Angeles Herald, about 1,000 feet of film was captured, which would have made the film last roughly ten minutes.
Guth wanted the film to contain various shots of the crowd, but stopped filming following the crowd's invasion of the stockade, as he was concerned the rowdy audience would destroy his camera. Guth showcased his film, titled The Hanging of William Carr, in Kansas City and St. Louis. He wanted to premiere the film at the Academy of Music, but settled for a local phonograph store instead. The first real execution to be filmed, it was perhaps not a surprise that its release attracted massive media attention, with several publications heavily criticising the recording for sensationalising the hanging and for exceeding the boundaries of decency. The Kansas City Star claimed that the film's content deterred many from viewing it, stressing that few women were present and that the majority of viewers consisted of boys "who should be protected by the law against such demoralising influences." However, the film was commercially successful enough for Guth to showcase it across America. Others cited the film and the crowd's volatile behaviour as reasoning for banning public executions, an editorial for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch believing that men should not have allowed their wives, children, and mothers to attend these graphic scenes. Still, public executions would continue, and a year later, the second filmed execution titled An Execution by Hanging was distributed, featuring the death of Edward Heinson.
Ultimately, despite the film's infamous and historic nature, no footage of The Hanging of William Carr has resurfaced, making it a lost film or at the very least not publicly available. Considering that around 75% of America's silent films have been declared as permanently missing, the chances of this film resurfacing remains intensely slim. Nevertheless, a few photos of Carr prior to his impending execution can be found online.
- Missouri Gravestones page on William Carr. Retrieved 15 Feb '23
- 27th October 1897 issue of Kansas City Journal reporting on Carr confessing to the murder. Retrieved 15th Feb '23
- 18th December 1897 issue of Los Angeles Herald reporting on Carr's execution, the "disgraceful" behaviour from the crowd, and the two films from APC. Retrieved 15 Feb '23
- 17th December 1897 issue of St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporting on Carr's execution, and providing the sketch of what the murder would have appeared based on Carr's description of events. Retrieved 15 Feb '23
- 7th November 1897 issue of Kansas City Journal reporting on Carr's appointed attorney, and noting a phonograph of Carr reciting his confession was made. Retrieved 15 Feb '23
- 2nd November 1897 issue of Kansas City Journal reporting on Carr's declining mental wellbeing after being incarcerated in Liberty. Retrieved 15 Feb '23
- Lynching and Spectacle providing a detailed account of the execution's filming, as well as the criticism and commercial reception it received. Retrieved 15 Feb '23
- Punishment in Popular Culture summarising Guth's filming of the execution, and the criticism the film received. Retrieved 15 Feb '23
- November-December 1897 issue of The Phonoscope documenting the phonographic film where Carr recited his confession. Retrieved 15 Feb '23
- Fade In, Crossroads summarising the filming of the hanging. Retrieved 15 Feb '23
- Corporeality in Early Cinema declaring that the film was the first of a real execution being documented, the scorn generated from its release, and noting An Execution by Hanging was the second filmed execution. Retrieved 15 Feb '23
- November-December 1897 issue of The Phonoscope critiquing the film of the execution. Retrieved 15 Feb '23
- Movies Silently noting the film's length and summary, and noting the footage is lost. Retrieved 15 Feb '23
- First recordings of life events determining The Hanging of William Car was the first filmed execution. Retrieved 15 Feb '23
- The Picture Show Man determining that the footage was the first instance of a filmed real execution. Retrieved 15 Feb '23
- The Atlantic noting most silent films from America are considered permanently lost. Retrieved 15 Feb '23