Frank Harris and “Pacer” Smith

5 Mar

Frank Harris was sentenced to die on November 29, 1895, in Freeport Illinois for shooting a man named Charles Bengel in May of that year.  Charles N. “Pacer” Smith was sentenced to die the same day in Decatur, Illinois for killing his 5-year-old daughter and 17-year-old sister-in-law and attempting to kill his estranged wife.

Smith and Harris were well acquainted, but accounts differed as to how well.  The Sporting Life said Smith “was at one time a resident of Freeport, and while here was known as Harris’ bosom friend and partner in a number of local ventures.”  The Decatur Review said the two played together on a team in Freeport in 1892. The Decatur Evening Bulletin said that the two had been teammates in Monmouth, Illinois in 1889.  (The Monmouth team was formed at the tail-end of the season to play out the Central Interstate League schedule of the Davenport Hawkeyes who  had folded–but neither Harris nor Smith are listed on any extant rosters for Monmouth).

Smith told The Decatur Daily Republican:

“I know Harris well.  He was with the Rockford club while I was with Ottawa and then we were together in the same club in the Southern League.  He was always a ratty, crazy fellow.  He married a rich girl in Freeport and will escape hanging if money is any good.”

(Surviving records show Harris with Rockford in 1890 and Smith with Ottawa in 1891. Harris played with the Chattanooga Lookouts in the Southern League in 1885; there is no record of Smith having played for the team).

Smith, who claimed he converted to Catholicism while awaiting the hangman, wrote a letter to Harris imploring him to do the same:

“Friend Frank—although in trouble myself, still I can find the time and inclination to sympathize with an old comrade in the same fix, and especially as the circumstance s connecting the two cases are so similar and out of the ordinary.  We are both to take our departure from this ‘vale of tears’ upon the same date to met [sic] him ‘who rules the universe,’ and before whom we both have to stand in judgment to hear perhaps the same verdict and sentence against us, once again in comradeship where the bickering and tribulations of this world have to part.

“I am happy to state to you I have received the consolations of religion to aid me in my extremity, and I wish you in answering this could assure me you, too, had claimed that only staff which it is possible for you to now lean upon with any surety and safety.  I have joined and been baptized in the faith of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, as I believe it to be the only and true church.  I have received its consolations and am resting easy in the confidence of its efficacy.

“I hope I will meet you in a ‘better world.’ Hoping to hear when you write that you have gone and done as well for yourself spiritually.  I will close by subscribing myself yours fraternally.

“Charles N. Smith ‘Pacer’”

Pacer Smith

Charles “Pacer” Smith

Smith also wrote a lengthy account of his life, baseball career and the murders he committed.  The Chicago Inter Ocean noted that he:

“Admits a petty double murder; but Mr. Smith avows he never threw a ballgame.”

While scaffolds were being erected in Decatur and Freeport, a group of Harris’ supporters, led by the town’s former mayor, Charles Nieman traveled to the state capital to seek a stay from Governor John Peter Altgeld.

Smith’s prediction that Harris would “escape hanging” proved to be correct.  On November 27 the governor postponed Harris’ execution until May 1, 1896.  The Sterling Gazette said the scaffolding in Freeport had been completed, the judge “strongly opposed” the governor’s decision and that the sheriff had already “sent out tickets of admission” for the hanging.

The Freeport Bulletin said:

“Harris has been very despondent for several days, and had made up his mind that he would be hanged Friday, and when informed that the governor had granted him a respite he broke down and wept like a child.  All day long he heard the carpenters at work on the scaffold, and could see the preparations made for his execution.”

As  “Pacer” Smith ascended the scaffold on November 29 a reporter from The Decatur Evening Bulletin asked him if he was aware that Harris had received a reprieve:

“He said he had, but seemed more interested in the fact that Harris had professed Christianity and been baptized.

“’It was my letter to him that is responsible for his conversion.  That was what influenced him. ‘

“When asked what he would say to a reprieve for himself, he snapped his fingers and said:

“’I don’t care that much.  I am all ready to go.’”

A few minutes later, at noon, “The drop occurred,” and “with a few convulsions the murderer died.”

Harris’ reprieve became permanent on April 23, 1896.  Governor Altgeld commuted his sentence to life in prison and he was sent to Illinois’ Joliet State Prison.   Despite the life sentence, The Joliet Republican said when Harris arrived at the prison:

“It is thought that the man will be pardoned out within a couple of years as he has the sympathy of the entire community where he lived.”

Frank Harris

Frank Harris

His release was not as quick as expected.  Harris applied unsuccessfully for parole on numerous occasions after his incarceration, and his wife divorced him in 1897.   But he did still have a large number of supporters in Freeport and other towns where he played.  In 1908, The Rockford Republic said friends from his time playing there had joined his friends from Freeport to work for his release, claiming he had been provoked by the man he shot.  Harris told the paper:

“It would be like one coming from the grave to again see the wonderful works of God and man, and oh, how I long to see it all.  Only a few days of liberty would be heaven on earth for me…there is a place in life for me and when I am released I will make a place.  I was never a bad man, but committed a crime through circumstances too strong for me to overcome.”

After more than a decade of efforts on Harris’ behalf,  Illinois Governor Charles S. Deneen pardoned him in 1911.

Harris returned to Freeport where he opened a tailor shop.  The former player had one last brush with the law in 1922.  The Freeport Journal-Standard said he threatened the chief of police and “several other people.”  As a result “A gun was taken away from Harris and he was informed by Chief Root that he would have to cease toting a gun.  Harris promised to refrain from drinking.”

A 1929 advertisement for Frank Harris' tailor business

A 1929 advertisement for Frank Harris’ tailor business

He continued operating tailor shop until March of 1939 when he went to the state hospital in East Moline, Illinois where he died eight months later on November 26 at age 81–one day short of the 44th anniversary of his reprieve.

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One Response to “Frank Harris and “Pacer” Smith”

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  1. Where are they Now?–1896 Edition | Baseball History Daily - March 25, 2015

    […] Two were incarcerated—Charlie Sweeney was in California’s San Quentin Prison for manslaughter, and Frank Harris was in jail in Freeport, Illinois awaiting execution for murder; his sentence was commu…. […]

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