The Chilling Story of Delaware’s Last Gallows

Illustration by Natalie Orga

Sixty-eight years after May Hitchens Carey—a widow and mother of three—became the last woman to be hanged in Delaware, the gallows were finally torn down.

When Delaware finally tore down the gallows it had used to hang death row inmates, state officials made a show of it. Rather than quietly take apart the ghoulish wooden device—last used in 1996, for the first time in 50 years—the state invited reporters to watch a backhoe operator tear it down with a chain. If this sounds like an event that took place decades ago, guess again: This year brings the 20th anniversary of the demolition of the structure, which included a trap door, 23 steps and a crossbeam from which to dangle a noose.

The death penalty remains a divisive issue in some parts of the United States, but by the time the gallows came down at the Delaware Correctional Center in Smyrna on July 9, 2003, the matter had nearly been settled in Delaware. No one left in prison was eligible to be hanged, and the state Supreme Court dismantled the capital punishment law in 2016, making it one of 23 states to effect an abolition. Its last sanctioned killing—by lethal injection—was carried out a decade ago.

On June 7, 1935 the state hanged May Hitchens Carey, a widowed mother of three sons who had been convicted of bludgeoning her brother to death to collect on a $2,000 life insurance policy.

And yet Delaware’s oldest residents were alive for one of the more sensational— or, depending on your disposition, horrifying—series of executions in state history. On June 7, 1935, the state hanged a widowed mother of three sons, then led her eldest child to the gallows.

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May Hitchens Carey, 55, and her son Howard, 27, had been convicted of murdering May’s brother Robert to collect on a $2,000 life insurance policy. Nearly eight years earlier, Robert had been found bludgeoned to death in his farm in Omar, his skull fractured in three places. The crime stumped police until May’s youngest son, Lawrence, was apprehended for a burglary. Officers pivoted to questioning him about his uncle’s death, and he admitted that he’d heard his mother and two older brothers plotting to kill his uncle. Once the Hitchens clan started talking, any question of guilt quickly evaporated. The middle brother, James, confirmed the story, adding that they had used a sledgehammer and a club made of white oak in the slaying.

Greater tragedies have erupted over less, but this one stands out for the paltriness of the stakes. After paying for Robert’s funeral and settling his estate, the family cleared $900 (about $15,300 in today’s money). May and Howard initially denied they were the killers, but May took responsibility at their one-day trial: “I drove the children to do it,” she confessed. But she wasn’t able to single-handedly absorb the punishment: James, who was shipped away for life at the New Castle County Workhouse, made off with the lightest sentence.

Newspapers served up breathless, hour-by-hour front-page coverage of the executions, detailing the final hours mother and son spent in adjoining cells, separated by a stone wall. During the family’s forlorn final meetings, a team of carpenters built an enclosure to cordon off the hangings from public view; the Careys said their goodbyes over the repetitive thwack of hammers outside. Reporters were prohibited from watching the execution, and the prison stood under heavy police guard.

“I have made my peace with God and my only regret is that I cannot take all of the punishment for my sons. Why can’t they hang me three times?”
—May Hitchens Carey

May Carey, who had been hunger striking for two weeks, steeled herself for the execution during final visits with members of her family who weren’t incarcerated. “I am ready to die,” she was quoted as saying. “I have made my peace with God and my only regret is that I cannot take all of the punishment for my sons. Why can’t they hang me three times?”

But that night, she plummeted into hysterics—the composure she’d shown while saying goodbyes disintegrated to the point officials thought they might have to carry her to the gallows. The Journal-Every Evening described her as “a pitiful figure” weighing less than 100 pounds. Howard, responding to his mother’s ululations, also teetered on the edge of collapse.

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It was 5 a.m. when she was led to the gallows, set up only about 100 steps from her cell. Then she mounted the stairs to the scaffold trap. Howard followed the same path about a half-hour later.

When it was over, the Every Evening noted, with a lyrical flourish, that mother and son “went unfalteringly to their death…as the rays of their last dawn broke through the fog that shrouded the small prison yard.”

At May’s request, the funeral procession solemnly passed her mother’s house. Across the road lay the remains of Robert Hitchens’ farm, which had been decimated by fire several years earlier. It was quiet, but some might say that no one would truly be at peace until about 68 years later, when the Careys’ instrument of death finally met its own timely demise.

Related: Route 40 Serial Killer Remains an Enigma After Convicted 30 Years Ago

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