Today is the anniversary of the death of the last man to be executed on Governors Island. On this date, February 24, 1865, Confederate Captain John Yates Beall was hanged for capturing two Union ships. The story was front-page news across the nation, and led to conspiracy theories around the death of President Lincoln, ghost stories, and urban legends.
Beall was a Virginian who fought for the South. During the war he slipped into the North and worked as a spy on clandestine missions. He took on a role as a member of the Confederate Navy, and undertook a plot against the Union. He and raiders were captured after interrupting supply lines and seizing a merchant ship in the Chesapeake Bay. Beall was returned to Richmond in a prisoner swap. He went back into action, and back North, with a new plot to free Confederate prisoners of war, derail passenger trains, and seize Union ships. On December 16, 1864, he was captured at Niagara Falls and brought to New York City.
A military court at Fort Lafayette charged Beall. The post was an island fort next to Brooklyn (today land used for the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge), and was part of the harbor’s defenses. Beall was found guilty of spying, trying to seize ships, and wreck trains. He was taken to Governors Island. Beall had excellent legal representation, efforts “including visits to President Abraham Lincoln, a petition signed by ninety-two members of Congress, and letters to Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.”
His last words were, “I protest against this execution. It is absolute murder—brutal murder. I die in the service and defense of my country.” He was 30 years old.
The New York Post related a story in 1912 about the execution. It said the “tragic part” of the day was that Beall and the U.S. Army commander in charge of the prison had been schoolmates. A few days before the execution, a man who had been in class with both the prisoner and commander asked if he could be granted permission to spend the night in the cell with Beall. He was allowed, as long as he didn’t help his friend with “means of cheating the gallows.” When Beall was told this, he smiled and said to his friend, “After I have been hanged, I want you to look in my left shoe. You will find then that there was no need for you to give this promise or for the commander to require it.” Following his death, inside Beall’s sole was found a sharpened piece of watch spring, which he could have used to commit suicide.
A grand conspiracy theory persists, and made its way into newspapers 20 years later. On September 8, 1886, the Wichita (Kansas) Eagle printed an account that had originated in the New York Star. It’s a story told by Marcus Mills “Brick” Pomeroy, a Midwest newspaper publisher and friend of Boss Tweed:
“At a private dinner given not long ago at an uptown club, “Brick” Pomeroy, who was one of the guests, startled the little company by observing:
“Gentlemen, I am positively sure that I am one of the three men in the world who knows why Wilkes Booth killed President Lincoln.”
Amid some expressions of surprise and mild incredulity, Mr. Pomeroy told the following story, prefacing it by the statement that it had never been published.
“I don’t know but that it is only right…” John Wilkes Booth was told that President Lincoln had granted Beall a pardon, and hurried to New York to tell him the good news. He went to “the Pennsylvania depot and took the first train for New York. He carried the news to Beall, who was confined at Governors Island, and the two men had a jollification.”
“Beall accepted the President’s promise of a pardon as final, and watched the approach of the day appointed for his execution with easy indifference.”
“Booth was a frequent visitor to his imprisoned friend, and although they soon commenced to think that there was unnecessary delay in the transmission of the pardon, they did not take the alarm until before the appointed day when the preparations being made for the execution aroused them from their false security.”
“Booth was frantic with terror and rage, and Beall’s condition was even more pitiable. The respite did not come, and the next day Beall was hanged.”
“Booth never would forgive Lincoln for his failure to keep his promise. He became almost wild for revenge, and in my opinion that is why he went to Washington and entered into the historic conspiracy of assassination.”
There is also a legend that Beall’s ghost haunts Castle Williams. In an 1890 newspaper account in the New York World, it’s said that his ghost has been spotted walking around the parapets of the fort.