Tag Archives: Ben Hill

Ben Hill

27 Jun

Benjamin L. Hill (some sources incorrectly list his middle initial as “N”), came to Oakland in 1890; Hill was signed by Colonel Tom Robinson to play center field for the Oakland Colonels in the California League.

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Ben Hill c. 1895

The Oakland Tribune said, “Hill is making a reputation as a base runner,” and he moved up in the batting order from seventh, early in the season, to second, and was batting leadoff by June. Then suddenly, he was gone.

According to Sporting Life:

“Ben was a good centre fielder, but incurred the displeasure of manager Robinson and was released.”

Hill finished the season with the San Francisco Haverlys.

He returned to semi-pro ball the following year accepting an offer to play for the Suisun Aetnas on the weekends in Suisun City, California, as Sporting Life said, he was, “given a comfortable business ‘sit’ (running a tavern) on the condition of playing with the team.”

Hill played with the Aetnas, a member of the Northern California based Valley League, for two seasons. When Suisun played a series in Sacramento, The Record-Union said:

“Ben Hill, an old Sacramento favorite, is captain and center fielder of the visitors. He is playing better ball now than he did with the Oaklands, which is saying a great deal, as he put up a fine game with the Colonels.”

While he appeared successful on the field, Hill was doing even better in the bar business and bought his own tavern. According to Sporting Life:

“He became popular and the saloon made money. Ben saw his value, borrowed some money and opened a bar and card rooms on his own account. He soon had the patronage of the whole town and was clearing from $400 to $500 per month.”

In 1892, Hill married 17-year-old Agnes Nelson.

But by 1894, the paper said, “(Hill) could not stand prosperity. He made periodical trips to the city; where his profits disappeared, no one knows how. He lost his business and is willing to play ball again.”

Hill and his wife had a two-year-old son when he lost the bar and there were no offers to return to baseball. He moved his family to Oakland in March of 1895 and took a job as a railroad brakeman. In November, he left his family in Oakland to seek work in Portland, Oregon.

Hill returned to Oakland in January of 1896, and on the evening of January 11, met with his wife on the street, they walked to the corner of Twelfth and Kirkham, where Hill pulled a revolver and shot her three times.  She died at the scene.

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Agnes Hill

According to The San Francisco Call, Hill walked to the nearby Piedmont Cable Company power house, handed the gun to an employee and waited for the police to arrive.

Two days after the killing, a reporter for The Oakland Tribune spoke with Hill:

“He is now at the city jail, about the most cool and unconcerned prisoner there. He does not repent his crime. He talks as dispassionately of killing his wife as he would any ordinary everyday occurrence.”

Meyer Cohen, a long-time Northern California “baseball enthusiast,” and one-time baseball writer for The Oakland Times, told The Tribune that Hill had been born in Sparta, Wisconsin in 1860 and:

“He attended college and studied for the ministry, but instead became a ballplayer.”

Cohen claimed Hill began his professional career in 1893 and said he played in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Minneapolis, Macon, Georgia, Omaha and Kearney, Nebraska, and Portland, Oregon, although there is little or no evidence of his time in any of those cities.

Cohen said that Charlie Ganzel had recommended Hill to Oakland:

“(He) fully sustained all that was said of him. He became a great favorite and as he was a good player, he made a host of friends.”

Cohen said under Hill’s leadership the Suisun Aetnas were “one of the best amateur clubs in the state,” and that Billy Hulan, who had a brief major league career but spent nearly two decades as a minor league player and manager, played for Hill before started his professional career in 1892.

At trial, Hill’s attorney claimed temporary insanity. Hill’s wife had admitted she was pregnant as the result of an affair and struck him, and according to his defense attorney:

“These acts…might not in themselves justify killing in a sane man, but were sufficient to render a man who loved his wife as Hill did to become insane.”

The jury disagreed.

Hill was found guilty and sentenced to hang within 10 days of his conviction in March of 1896. He received a temporary stay of execution while his case was appealed.

The San Francisco Chronicle said Hill’s brother and sister in law began an appeal fund and solicited “The ball players of America,” to contribute. The paper said Charlie Ganzel “is treasurer of the fund which promises to be a good sized one.”

The fund must have done fairly well, Hill’s legal team managed to get several stays of execution while his case worked his way up to the Supreme Court, he also had his case presented to the governor twice in an effort to be granted executive clemency.

According to The Call, while his appeals proceeded:

“Ever since Hill was convicted of the murder…and brought to San Quentin under sentence of death he has devoted his entire time to reading and studying the bible. In fact, so ardent have been his religious devotions that the murderer was believed to be a fanatic.”

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Ben Hill c. 1898

Hill began preaching to his fellow death row inmates, including Theodore Durrant, the “Demon of the Belfry,” who killed two women in the church he was the superintendent of the Sunday school—the 1895 murders were called “San Francisco’s crime of the century.” Durrant had also received several stays while awaiting his appeal.

The Call said:

“Durrant is an interested listener and one of Hill’s best scholars.”

The Supreme Court denied his appeal in February, and on April 6, 1898 Hill stood on the scaffold at San Quentin.

The Oakland Tribune went into exacting detail of the execution, noting that Hill spoke his last words—admitting his guilt—at 10:32 AM, and was dead a minute later.

The Tribune declared:

“It was the most successful execution ever held in San Quentin and Hill proved to be the gamest man who ever mounted a prison scaffold.”

Like describing a ball game, the state’s executioner Amos Lunt told the paper:

“He was the gamest man I ever saw on the scaffold, and he is the sixteenth man I have worked on. Durrant (his appeals had run out and he had been hung three months earlier) was not in it with him. He was cool and spoke longer and with less trembling than Durrant did.”

Hill’s brother and sister in law adopted his son.

Eighteen months, and five more executions, after Hill was put to death, Amos Lunt, the state’s executioner went insane. The Call said:

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Amos Lunt

“His diseased imagination has conjured up the specters of those he has executed, the gibbering, mocking ghosts of twenty-one blood-stained wretches…’They are after me,’ whispered the demented hangman. ‘There are several under the bed now.”

Lunt was committed to Napa State Hospital where he died two years later.