A jailbreak from Joliet Prison, Illinois, in the spring of 1926 cost the life of Assistant Warden Peer Klein, shot dead as seven convicts forced the gates and escaped. Over the next few months six of the fugitives were captured and sentenced to hang for Klein’s murder. But two more escapes – this time from the county jail where they were in custody – in which one of them was killed and two others got away, reduced the six to three.

The trio’s date with destiny was fixed for sunrise, July 15th, 1927, and during the night of the fourteenth several hundred people gathered in front of the county jail in Joliet. There was thick fog that night and the air was hot and damp. Each of the crowd was hoping to gain entrance to the pine stockade where the gallows were located.

Before dawn the crowd had swollen to 1,000, and among them was the widow of Peter Klein, come to watch retribution for her husband’s murder.

Inside the jail the trio’s last meal was a supper of bread and coffee. All three had grown beards to wear to the gallows with their new white shirts. Charles Duschowski remained silent. He refused to talk to a priest and tore up the prayer book that was handed to him. Walter Stalesky and Robert Torrez spent the night praying.

At 2 a.m. the sheriff had the prisoners handcuffed to cell bars. He wanted no last-minute escapes or suicide attempts to cause a delay. Two hours later the condemned men got dressed in their new shirts and trousers.

Half an hour later four priests arrived and began to pray. Duschowski now talked to one of them and made his peace. The hangings, scheduled for 5.30 a.m., were delayed because of crowd control problems. Half a dozen fights were started in the pushing and shoving for a view, and besides those who managed to get into the pine stockade there were hundreds more camped on nearby rooftops.

The crowd got its first look at the killers a 6 a.m. They were wearing straps around their arms with their hands in cuffs. At the jail door the sheriff read them the death sentence, to which Duschowski responded curtly: “All right, let’s go.” The three condemned men were led through the jail yard by six armed guards. A reporter wrote: “They marched with firm steps and did not falter. Then they climbed the gallows’ steps, forcing sneers.”

They shook hands with each other before black hoods were placed over their heads. At 6.15 the sheriff signalled the hangman, who pulled a lever. There was a thudding sound as the trap-doors dropped and the three necks snapped instantly. The thud was followed by a universal gasp from the crowd. Four spectators fainted. The widow of assistant warden Peter Klein was seen to smile.

As the bodies were removed, several spectators tried to cut off pieces of the rope as keepsakes. The bodies were laid out in a funeral parlour where more than 15,000 passed through in a long line. This was an American public hanging at its most dramatic.

But there was more to come. Charles Shader, one of the two killers who had escaped from the county jail, was re-captured. “I don’t want any sympathy,” he said. “I’m not afraid of the noose.” So, on Wednesday, October 10th, 1928, he dropped through the trap-door at Joliet Prison to become the last man hanged in Illinois. After that, the state changed its execution procedure, first to the electric chair, and later to lethal injection.