Pacer Smith

Violent crimes have been charged to professional athletes long before the days of O.J. Simpson. In fact, these cases go back almost to the beginning of professional sports. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, at least three major league baseball players committed murder. Edgar McNabb and Marty Bergen killed themselves before they could be brought to trial, and Charlie Sweeney spent several years in San Quentin Prison. On Friday, November 29, 1895, a former professional pitcher, Charles “Pacer” Smith, was hanged for the murder of his daughter and sister-in-law two months before.

Charles N. Smith was born in Pendleton, Indiana, on August 4, 1853. He was the fourth of ten children of John A. and Rebecca Smith. John Smith was a shoemaker who joined the Union Army shortly after the start of the Civil War, enlisting in the 39th Indiana Infantry formed at Indianapolis in August of 1861. The Infantry regiment became the 8th Indiana Cavalry in 1863. In late 1864, John Smith was thrown from his horse and reportedly spent six months in a hospital. He never completely recovered from the injury; the Decatur Daily Review described him as “practically a cripple.”

Family members “considered Charles a very bright boy. He went to school a number of years and received the rudiments of a fair education,” according to the Review. They also remembered that in his youth, “he was lively and full of spirits but was not characterized by any bad or vicious habits. He was always fond of athletic sports, and as the game of baseball was just beginning to be popular during his early manhood he naturally drifted into that profession. He never was put to any trade and never did any work until after he grew up.”

Smith would say of his youth and beginnings in baseball: “My boyhood passed in the even tenor of the average boy going to school and amusing myself to the best of my ability as all boys do until I reached the age of 23, when I first commenced to play professional baseball. I had by this time, through practising [sic] with the various clubs in my vicinity professional and amateur, acquired the reputation of being a skillful ballplayer and I was offered and accepted a position with the Red Stockings of Cincinnati, Ohio.”

Smith started his professional career in the mid 1870s. Contemporary sources say he began with the Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1876 and 1877, leading to the frequently reported story that Smith was the only major league player executed for murder. The tale has been exaggerated and garbled enough over the years that some sources state that Smith and a Cincinnati teammate committed murder and were sentenced to death at about the same time. In fact, the second player was a teammate of Smith at Monmouth, Illinois, during the 1889 season. Furthermore, although Smith was likely the property of the Cincinnati major league team, he never appeared in a regular season major league contest. His playing time was apparently confined to exhibition games (which were frequent during those seasons) and action with area independent teams.

Still, Smith’s play in Cincinnati must have been of sufficient quality to allow him to spend the next few seasons in cities that would later have major league or strong minor league teams. He played for the Baltimore Blues in 1878 and 1879, and Nashville in 1880. He then returned to Indiana, spending 1881 with Terre Haute and the next two seasons with Indianapolis (which had become his family’s home), both of the Northwestern League. Not retained when Indianapolis got major league baseball in 1884, Smith stayed in the area with the Noblesville team that year. In 1885, he played for clubs in Jacksonville, Florida and Greencastle and Evansville, Indiana.

During the early 1880’s, John and Rebecca Smith separated, though they apparently remained married. Rebecca Smith and three of her children moved west to Illinois. Settling first in Danville and Mattoon, they eventually moved to the Decatur area. Initially, Charles lived with a married sister in Indianapolis, but in 1886 he moved to Decatur to pitch for the local team.

Decatur ownership had ambitions to form the best independent professional ball club in the region for the 1886 season and they largely succeeded. Manager Al Morgan had at least one scout rounding up players, who were recruited throughout the Midwest and from as far away as Philadelphia. At least three members of the Decatur team had previously or would subsequently play in the major leagues. Blue and white uniforms identical to those worn by the Chicago White Stockings were purchased, and a new grandstand was constructed for the diamond located at the city’s Oakland Park. A large organ operated by steam and horse power was acquired for entertainment of the fans.

Smith reported to Decatur along with battery mate Mort Cook, also from Indianapolis, arriving well before the May 10 reporting date. At least one other player, Charlie Reising, had also been a teammate at Indianapolis. Later reports placed Smith’s height at 5′ 8″ and his weight at 170 pounds. He was described as “muscular.” Smith immediately impressed Morgan. “The members of the home team couldn’t bat Smith very hard yesterday afternoon,” a note in the Decatur Republican concerning an early practice said. “They could scarcely get the ball outside the diamond.”

A brass band was hired for the Decatur White Stockings’ season opener on May 24, a 16-9 victory over DuQuoin club then known as “the champions of southern Illinois”. Smith was used in the outfield that day, and attracted notice at the plate. In the first inning, he doubled in a pair of runs. In the sixth, he tripled and scored on a throwing error. In the seventh, he doubled in a run but was thrown out trying to stretch it into a triple.

The following day, Smith, playing third base, had the unusual distinction of outhitting the entire DuQuoin team, with two hits in Luke Lutenberg‘s 6-4 no-hitter. In the final game of the series, an easy 17-5 victory, Smith made his pitching debut, allowing four hits and striking out seven to complete the sweep. The Review said of the contest: “Play was called at two o’clock and for the next two hours the home club practiced with the visitors and gave them pointers on how to play ball before calling themselves the champions of Southern Illinois.”

Early in 1886, Smith was more valuable at the plate than in the pitcher’s box (in those pre-mound days). In one June game he had four hits in six at bats. However, as his hot streak began to wear off, his pitching talent became more apparent. “Smith did good work in the box, but was not as effective as usual with the bat,” the Republican noted after an exhibition with the Pittsburgh Alleghenys. Smith gave up nine hits, struck out seven and walked three in the rain-shortened eight-inning game, umpired by Pittsburgh ace James “Pud” Galvin.

Smith was used as an infielder in an exhibition against the St. Louis Browns of the American Association, which the major league club won, 25-2. Morgan had wanted to sharpen his own team’s play against the stiff competition and make them earn any runs or hits they received, and so repeatedly had urged opposing manager Charles Comiskey during the game not to let the Browns go easy on Decatur. That comment on Smith’s play was favorable, despite a throwing error, is thus all the more notable.

Charles Smith began to assert himself as Decatur’s best pitcher on June 28, in a 10-6 victory over the Springfield Reds. He came in relief after the starter, a man with the last name Fieber, gave up six runs (two earned) in the first two innings. “Morgan put old reliable Smith in the centre,” the Decatur Republican said, “and the visitors were shut out in the next seven innings, only one man of the 21 who went to bat succeeding in getting to third base off the wizard’s swift delivery.” Smith struck out eight in his seven innings; Springfield’s Harry Staley fanned seventeen. The Republican also made note of a seemingly innocent occurrence that day: “Smith got a lovely bouquet at the close of the game from an admiring friend. He earned it.” No mention of the friend’s identity is made, but it could have been Maggie Buchert, his future wife, whom Smith met some time that summer.

Two days after the Springfield win, he was even better, in a 4-2 victory over the Central club of St. Louis. Both Decatur newspapers raved about a dominant performance. The Republican said: “Smith was the king of the box. He had his canine mascot tied to a stake, and did effective work, fooling the batters and watching the bases, while he tried to catch all the fouls that went over the grand stand. Jack Dooms was the only man who got a hit; that was a two bagger, and it brought in a man who had taken his base on Burns’ error.” The Review was more interested in Smith’s pickoff move. “Smith had a good trick of turning quickly after having settled to deliver the ball and catching a runner between first and second. He worked it successfully several times yesterday.”

He beat the Centrals again the next day, too, opposing Kid Baldwin, who took the day off from the Cincinnati Reds. Baldwin usually caught, but Smith bested him on his day in the box; the major leaguer lasted six innings and the Review said he was hit hard. Smith himself pitched effectively, and had a pair of hits at the plate. On a scheduled day off, Smith pitched again, called in from the outfield to replace the injured starter in a July 3 game at Springfield. Although pitching every other day was common then, four appearances in five games over a six-day span was unusual even for 1886. And Smith still was ready and willing to start both ends of the upcoming July 5 doubleheader.

The series against the Centrals had been poorly attended, but when another St. Louis amateur team arrived for the holiday twinbill that Monday, over 3,000 fans saw Decatur split with the Prickly Ash club, which multiple press outlets recognized as the “champion amateur club of St. Louis” by virtue of its wins over other St. Louis amateur teams. Smith won 10-8 in the morning, and lost 9-5 in the afternoon. He was remarkably consistent, allowing eight hits in the win and nine in the loss, striking out seven in each contest. The games would be the beginning of a rivalry that by fall would attract national attention; the loss was Decatur’s first to a non-major league team.

Finding appropriate competition could be problematic for an independent team like Decatur in the nineteenth century. They were generally too good for most of their opponents, but not good enough in games against major league teams, which was again the case when Baltimore, the worst team in the American Association that year, visited on July 9. Decatur was trailing 11-2 after six when Smith came in from right field to finish the contest. He allowed four runs and struck out two in the two innings, as the ambidextrous Matt Kilroy, who pitched the last two frames for the Orioles, stole the show in front of a crowd of about 700.

Decatur’s next four games, two against the Christian Brothers College of St. Louis and two against Greencastle, Indiana, resulted in wins of 10-0, 13-3, 25-1, and 27-6. Smith pitched the last three games, striking out thirteen, nine, and seven. More noteworthy was Decatur’s acquisition of new uniforms, which the Review “generally pronounced elegant. The goods is of an old gold color, with Maroon stockings and trimmings. The caps are old gold and Maroon stripes.” The writer in the Review called the old uniforms “very countrified,” and surmised: “The patrons of the park will rejoice to see them clad like ball players on the field instead of haw-eaters.” The team was often nicknamed the Maroons from then on.

Soon after, Decatur went on a month-long road trip against teams from the Northwest League as well as independent clubs, with games in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Indiana, before returning in late August. They generally beat the independent teams and played competitive games against the minor leaguers, losing more than they won against Northwest League teams.

The homecoming game, which Smith started, was against a major league team; Boston of the National League stopped in Decatur after finishing a series in Detroit. Like most of Decatur’s other contests against major leaguers, the outcome was never in doubt. “The Boston League club swooped down on the diamond in carriages and actually mopped up the ground with our yellow-suited boys,” said the Republican, which went into little detail on the play-by-play. “There was a big crowd out, and Goodman’s band was there to enliven the game with spirited music. The testimonial was a big success, but it makes us tired to tell about the game. The Boston sluggers rapped Smith terrifically and the way they ran bases indicated that they had been taking lessons of such sprinters as Murphy and Malone,” two regionally famous runners from the St. Louis area (who also happened to play for Prickly Ash). The final score was Boston 28, Decatur 1. Smith allowed 23 hits and ten earned runs, striking out two and walking three. He was charged with six errors (walks customarily were charged as errors in 1886). At the plate, he managed a double.

As the 1886 season wound down, Decatur played some of its most competitive baseball. Despite back-to-back contests against future major league pitcher Red Ehret, Decatur won a home series from an Evansville team billed as the champions of Indiana, 4-3 and 7-4. Smith pitched the second game for Decatur, striking out ten. But the biggest game of the season for the Decatur team was still to take place, a rematch with Prickly Ash.

“The game between Decatur and Prickly Ash will be just like a professional contest. So say Managers Hobbs and Morgan,” said The Sporting News in early September. “Manager Morgan, of the Decaturs, says they can for $100. Manager Hobbs, of the Prickly Ash, says they can’t. The Sporting News holds the $200.” Betting on the contest was heavy. Star National League shortstop Jack Glasscock reportedly won $5 betting on Decatur. The game had been agreed to for the $200 plus 40% of the gate receipts even before the Prickly Ash visit to Decatur in July. It was scheduled for St. Louis’ Union Park on the afternoon of September 12.

A special excursion train left Decatur at 7:30 that Sunday morning carrying the team and an estimated 200 fans. The Sporting News said the Decatur fans “did not bring any tin horns or trumpets with them, but they made any amount of noise, and during the progress of the game they had no trouble at all in shouting down the opposition.” Total attendance was variously estimated at 2,000 to 3,000 and Albert Spink, publisher of The Sporting News, was among the large press contingent. Spink’s account of the contest appeared on the front page of the September 20 issue.

Smith would be one of the Decatur stars in that afternoon’s 6-1 victory. Even before he threw a pitch, Smith had a hand in Decatur’s first run, sacrificing Charles Reising to second in the first inning. Reising later scored on a passed ball. Smith’s fastball was formidable, the account in the Decatur Republican said: “He fired the balls over the plate with cyclonic force.” The Sporting News account called his pitching “very effective.”

The Illinois team also played outstanding defense that day, committing just three errors. The most spectacular play was made by right fielder Ed Flynn in the third, after Prickly Ash had tied the game and had a runner on first. Described the Republican: “Ed had to run 50 feet to right to get it and he nabbed it by making a quick jump. The catch retired the side, amid wild applause from all sides. As he walked in, the crowd made him take off his hat, somebody in the Decatur delegation throwing him cigars.”

Though Flynn made the most spectacular defensive play, Smith was certainly the busiest Decatur defender. Said the Republican: “Smith was everywhere ready to do effective work, and he had seven assists besides the [six] strikeouts. Spink watched him closely, and as Smith got in quick assists, he exclaimed: ‘That is the way; that is playing ball.’”

Leading 4-1 in the sixth, Smith’s pitching and defense were keys to keeping Prickly Ash from narrowing the lead. With no outs, Peterson of Pricky Ash had gotten to third after a dropped third strike, base hit by teammate Peters, and stolen base. The Republican said he “tried to come home on Decker’s short hit to Smith, but the great hustler caught him off the base by throwing to [Third Baseman] Lauman, and then while the crowd was cheering, Smith, [Catcher] Callender and Lauman ran him down and put him out. On the play Peters got third and Decker took second. A hit would have brought both men in, and bets were made that they would score; but Smith worked Ward cleverly and struck him out, while Bene was thrown out at first by [Second Baseman] Douthett, thus ending the agony, whereupon the Decatur crowd yelled again and sounded the merry chestnut bells.”

The Decatur team came home to a celebration, as the Republican recounts: “When the train arrived at the depot at 12:05, Goodman’s band, seated in an open street car, struck up a lively tune, and the crowd pressed about the Decatur team to get a shake. Three open carriages were at the platform for the victors, who were driven up to the square, the band playing along the route. Ladies appeared at various windows and waved their welcome. On the square there was more music, three cheers by the crowd and the players were driven to their homes.” Smith got the game ball, and according to the Republican, “He would not take a farm for it.”

Charles N. Smith was one of Decatur’s most popular citizens in September of 1886. Almost exactly nine years later, he’d be its greatest villain. Players from the 1886 Decatur team attracted attention from other professional teams, and Smith was no exception. He finished 1886 playing for a team in Little Rock, Arkansas, and began the 1887 season with Memphis of the Southern League. His stay in Memphis was brief. Statistics show no regular season appearances, though a player named Smith (no first name given) made one start for Nashville. Later in 1887, he pitched for Wichita of the Western League, and Champaign, Illinois.

Off the field, there were rumors of an unstable personality. At various times after Smith’s first season in Decatur, he was indicted or suspected of crimes including burglary, larceny, assault, and gambling. His alcohol consumption likely increased greatly after 1886, local press reports in the aftermath of the murder surmised.

In 1888, Decatur helped form the new Central Interstate League, “in the assertion that the league system will pay better than playing with scrub clubs,” the Review stated. Early rosters showed many players who’d later achieve prominence in baseball; including Clark Griffith, Joe Cantillon and Willard Mains. The Decatur roster was a mixture of young players, such as future major leaguer Jerry Harrington, as well as veterans, one of whom was the 34-year-old Smith.

Decatur’s exhibition schedule consisted of games at Lafayette and Logansport, Indiana, and Smith impressed a writer for The Lafayette Journal: “Smith, the Decatur twirler, is a terrific pitcher. Every time the ball struck the amphitheatre there seemed danger of that building going to pieces.”

He likely received his nickname that season. Teammate “Phonse” Connally later remembered: “Smith had a habit when at bat of waiting for his base on balls. Then he would amble down to first in a peculiar manner, which was not unlike the pace of a horse. A reporter on the Bloomington Pantagraph named McDonald first noticed this peculiarity in a game at that city and alluded to him as ‘Pacer’ Smith, and that name has stuck to him ever since.”

As pleasant as Smith’s 1886 season with Decatur had been, 1888 was not. Poor organization handicapped both the league and the team. Manager Michael Hurley was late in reporting. The team lost seven straight to open the season, quickly falling into last place. Smith himself lost his first three decisions, though press comment on his pitching was generally favorable. He won his first game on May 16 against Bloomington, 8-6.

Losing often breeds dissension on a baseball team, and the 1888 Decatur Maroons were no exception. When the team was in Dubuque, Iowa, Hurley sent a telegram to one of the Decatur newspapers, accusing Smith and another player, Devore, of “stupid base running.” The Decatur Daily Review lambasted it: “Smith is never stupid in his ball playing or base running. No one ever accused him of stupidity before. Evidently someone is trying to queer Smith and Devore in the estimation of the public. The stupid telegram is a mean charge and may prove a boomerang.” A few days later, the Review printed Smith’s reply: “Smith avers he was not guilty of stupid base running in the Dubuque game, but that Hurley was, for he crowded Smith off third base.” Manager Hurley left the team at the end of May, and it disbanded shortly thereafter.

Smith joined the Bloomington, Illinois club for a while, and finished the 1888 season in Effingham, Illinois, pitching independent ball and working as a fireman on the Vandalia Railroad. On the evening of Wednesday, December 26, he married Maggie Buchert, also of Decatur, at the California Hotel in Effingham. The Review reported that Maggie’s parents “had protested for some time against her friendliness for Smith and had positively refused to consent to their marriage.” Maggie spent the winter with her husband in Effingham then went with him to Elkhart, Indiana. Smith pitched with the Elkhart team in 1889 until it disbanded, and finished the season playing for teams in Monmouth, Illinois and Fort Madison, Iowa. The couple was reportedly happy that first year. That happiness wouldn’t last.

His pitching skills in decline, Pacer Smith had one last strong season left. In 1890, he pitched for Ottawa, Illinois of the Illinois-Iowa League. The Decatur Daily Review later remembered: “The Ottawa people went wild over him. He was banqueted and was a social pet. The citizens presented him with an elegant gold watch and a purse of $75. The Ottawa papers lauded him to the skies and said he had ‘splendid control of the ball and the best headwork of any of the pitchers of the league.’ About this time a firm of cigar manufacturers got out a brand of cigars they called the ‘Pacer Smith’ with a portrait of Smith on the label in baseball costume.” Also in 1890, Maggie gave birth to a daughter, Louise.

About this time, Pacer Smith’s drinking had escalated to the point that it began to have repercussions on his personal life, and he and Maggie separated about a month after Louise was born. Maggie returned to her parents’ home in Decatur. Pacer Smith sometimes visited his family and sent money, though financial support was sporadic at best.

Smith began the 1891 season with Oconto of the Wisconsin State League. After his release, he pitched semipro ball in Decatur. The following season he pitched for the Pana, Illinois, independent team and attempted to become an electrician. Apparently unsuccessful in that endeavor, he pitched for a team in Muncie, Indiana, in 1893 and for various Indiana semipro teams the following season. By then his drinking was out of control, and 1894 proved the end of his baseball career.

Athletes handle the end of their playing career and aging differently. Some adapt well to life after baseball, and some don’t. Smith certainly had the skills to make a decent living outside of baseball. One Decatur newspaper said: “He was a good cook and worked at various places, and was much in demand by camping and fishing parties. He was quite a dog fancier and devoted considerable time to the training of hunting dogs.” He also worked as a bartender, a common occupation of former players with a fondness for alcohol. He resided at the home of his mother, and visited his estranged wife and daughter frequently. But he was prone to outbursts of aggression; during some of those visits, he reportedly threatened his wife after she refused his request to reconcile. In late 1894, he was rumored to be part of a violent attack and robbery on an elderly man, but nothing was ever proven.

Until September 28, 1895, Pacer Smith was just another alcoholic ex-player who sometimes lived outside of the law. Early that afternoon, he borrowed a .38 caliber Harrington & Richardson revolver from saloon keeper Michael Duggan, saying that he needed to shoot a dog with distemper. The Review said that Duggan “thought nothing of the request for the revolver. As he went out of the saloon with it, Smith who appeared to be in an ordinary frame of mind, remarked that he would bring it back in twenty minutes and invited Duggan to go out with him to where the dog was.”

At about 3:00 pm, Smith arrived at the Buchert residence. Maggie and her seventeen-year-old sister Edna were the only family members at home. The next day’s Decatur Daily Review described the tragedy:

After talking with his wife a short time he asked for his daughter and Edna went to a neighbor’s, where the child was playing[,] to bring her home. During her absence Smith and his wife talked quietly and in a comparatively pleasant manner. Edna returned with the little one, who went into the kitchen where her father and mother were talking. Smith says she had been in the house about ten minutes when he shot her. Telling his wife he had come for the purpose of killing them both, he drew his revolver, pointed it at the child on the steps[,] and fired.

The bullet hit Louise in the neck, and the little girl fell down the basement stairs, mortally wounded.

The account continued:

Then Smith turned the revolver upon his wife, who started screaming out of the north door of the kitchen, and turning west ran through the yard of the residence adjoining and across the street. Smith fired two shots at her as she ran, neither taking effect.

Edna Buchert ran into the kitchen, apparently to help Louise.

Smith turned his revolver upon her as she faced him and sent a bullet into her bosom, a little to the left of the right breast. The poor girl turned and ran out upon the south or front porch of the house a distance of perhaps fifteen feet and as she reached the porch steps fell headlong to the ground.

Frank Buchert, Maggie and Edna’s father, heard the screams from his nearby butcher shop and took his dying daughter in his arms.

About the same time Smith came out of the house and walked across the yard to fence in front. As he did so, Mr. Buchert made a motion as if to take hold of him and the murderer said: ‘Take care or you will get it too.’ He still had the revolver in his hand and pointed it at Mr. Buchert.

Smith leaned against the fence watching his dying sister-in-law being cared for by neighbors. Frank Buchert went back to his shop and grabbed a knife, but thought better of it.

Meanwhile, Maggie Smith had fled to a nearby grocery run by a man named Jacobs. Pacer Smith left the Buchert residence and calmly walked east, still carrying the revolver, before turning north across the street from Jacobs’ store. Priscilla Jacobs instructed her husband to kill Smith if he tried to enter their store. “Haven’t I got a right to kill that man?” Jacobs said. After calling the police, he got into a buggy and followed Smith.

Deputy Sheriff Frank Taylor and Patrolman Oscar Cross, who took Jacobs’ call, borrowed a buggy from the county’s overseer of the poor, and soon met Jacobs near Clay Street. They asked Jacobs who had committed the crime. “Pacer Smith, there he goes,” replied Jacobs. Continued the Review:

Both officers jumped from their buggy and drawing their revolvers started on a run after him. Smith who had gone across the street and into the alley on the other side slacked up when he saw the officers and then for an instant disappeared behind a shed adjoining the alley. [Smith] came back into the alley and stood still in plain sight.

Officer Cross took Smith’s weapon, and the former pitcher was handcuffed and taken to the Decatur city jail.

Edna Buchert died almost immediately, while Louise was treated by doctors. At first, it seemed she might survive, but early in the morning of Monday, September 30, she took a turn for the worse, and passed away at 7:00 a.m. Both were buried in the same grave.

Pacer Smith, when interviewed by a reporter for the Daily Review, seemed somehow detached and indifferent to the murders. He claimed that he’d mistaken his sister-in-law for his wife, and in his account of the events referred to Louise as “the kid” or “the baby” but not by her name. He also claimed to be hazy on some of what had occurred.

An inquest was held the day Louise died, and Pacer Smith was indicted for the two murders. He was arraigned that afternoon on two counts of homicide and counsel was appointed.

The trial was held on October 7, and Smith entered a guilty plea. Assistant State’s Attorney A.H. Mills presented a case. Duggan testified that he loaned Smith the murder weapon. Priscilla Jacobs testified next. When Frank Buchert took the stand, he spoke emotionally about the crime and about his daughter’s marriage and its dissolution. Deputy Taylor and Officer Cross were also called. A newspaper reporter and the sheriff testified about statements made by Smith.

The prosecution then rested and Pacer Smith took the stand. He made the following statement: “I borrowed the gun on purpose to go down and kill the baby— to kill my wife and child. I understood that if I came up and pleaded guilty I would be hung and I am willing to do it.” He requested that the sentence be put off until February 16, 1896, the day he was apparently supposed to inherit significant property. Then he added, “I am willing to face anybody and everybody.”

Judge Vail then delivered the verdict: “There is not, to my mind, any excuse whatever for the willful, intentional killing of a child who could not in the nature of things, cause anyone to harbor ill-feeling toward her, and in my judgment this case is one that justifies, or would justify, the extreme penalty of the law.”

Vail asked Smith if there were any extenuating circumstances. Smith didn’t answer, and Judge Vail pronounced his sentence: “It is ordered by the court that you be taken from the bar of this room to the common jail of this county, whence you came, and there be kept in confinement until Friday, the 29th day of November next, on which day you will be taken by the sheriff to a place prepared and hang by the neck until you are dead.”

Smith quietly thanked the judge, while Maggie expressed satisfaction: “O’ the slayer of my child has got what he deserves. Thank God he has got what he deserves.”

At the same time, a teammate at Monmouth, Illinois, in 1889 was also under sentence of death. Frank Harris quarreled with a man in Freeport, Illinois, and was sentenced to hang the same day as Smith. Harris was reprieved by Illinois Governor John Altgeld, a man who two years earlier, had pardoned three men sentenced to death for their roles in Chicago’s Haymarket riots. But there would be no pardon or reprieve for Pacer Smith.

In his last few weeks of life, Pacer Smith converted to Catholicism and wrote a letter to Harris urging his conversion. He also wrote a lengthy account giving his motive for the crime: “I decided that as I could not live with them here upon this earth, that I would be united with them in heaven, and I took that means of accomplishing my desire, there was no other way for me to enjoy the company of my loved ones.”

In the days leading up to the execution, Smith had most of his family as visitors to the jail, even enjoying a Thanksgiving dinner the day before his death. Father Edward Brady was also a frequent visitor. Funeral arrangements were announced a couple of days before the hanging. The ceremony would take place in St. Patrick’s Catholic Church with burial following in the Catholic cemetery on West El Dorado Street. Smith’s elderly father, John, traveled from his home in Indianapolis for a final visit with his son.

Pacer Smith reportedly slept well on the last night of his life, waking at 4:00 a.m. He ate a light breakfast at 9:00 and met with Father Brady and another priest. He took a brief nap, then said a final goodbye to family members. Meanwhile, Sheriff Nicholson dealt with the bedlam inside the jail; many visitors wanted to see the gallows and had to be escorted away. At about 11:00 a.m., ticket holders for the execution were admitted. Shortly afterward, Louis Buchert, Maggie’s brother, delivered a last message to Pacer from his wife. Then Nicholson read Smith the death warrant.

At 11:50 a.m., Nicholson and Father Brady, along with two other priests, Father Macken and Father Huggins, accompanied Smith to the gallows. According to the Review, he was “looking straight forward towards Father Brady and carrying a crucifix with both hands clasped over it.

On one side of him, perhaps a half step behind him, was Deputy Sheriff Stabler and on the other side was Deputy Sheriff Tom Richardson. This solemn procession moved across the jail office and into the corridor and up on the gallows before the crowd seemed to know that it had come. Smith walked up with a firm step. He did not betray any hesitation or nervousness, but stood as he was placed at the front of the gallows just on the edge of the trap with his face toward the east.

The small crowd of approximately 25 persons was described as fairly noisy when Sheriff Nicholson asked Smith if he had any last words. Smith replied in a quiet voice: “I am truly sorry for all I have done.”

Smith and the priests then recited a final prayer. The Review described the execution:

When the prayer was finished the deputies pushed him back gently and he stepped back about one pace to the center of the trap. Then Deputy Sheriff Holmes pinioned his arms and legs. As he finished Deputy Sheriff Sam Stabler was standing on the other side with the noose in his hand and adjusted it quickly. As he took his hands from the knot Deputy Sheriff Holmes unfolded the black cap raised his arms and said ‘Goodbye Charley’ His voice was steady and clear. ‘Goodbye.’ His voice came from out of the folds of the cap which was already being drawn tight over his head. As Holmes stepped back he motioned to Sheriff Nicholson, who stood with his hands on the trigger. In a second the sheriff moved his hands the five or six inches necessary to pull the bar that held the trap. It came down with a dull rattle and jolt and the body fell. It seemed to quiver a moment as the rope was drawn tight, but hung steadily, facing the east without turning as much as a quarter of the way around. The head was bent far over to the right side.

All of this had taken about four minutes, and six minutes later Smith was pronounced dead. His body was taken down and placed in a waiting coffin. At his funeral the next day, most of the pall bearers were former teammates.


Decatur (Illinois) Daily Review, 1886, 1888, 1895

Decatur (Illinois) Daily Republican, 1886, 1888

Decatur (Illinois) Weekly Republican, 1895

Decatur (Illinois) Bulletin 1895

The Sporting News, 1886, 1888, 1895

United States Census Indiana 1860, 1880

Wright, Marshall, The Southern Association in Baseball 1885-1958 John Peter Altgeld biography Union regimental histories Indiana

Full Name

Charles N. Smith


August 4, 1853 at , ()

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