From the history vaults: the tragic story of Charles Thiede
Oct 03, 2019 11:46AM
By Shaun Delliskave
Murderer Charles Thiede, convicted of killing his wife, Mary. (Photo courtesy of U of U Marriott Library)
By Shaun Delliskave | [email protected]
It was a first for the State of Utah and, to date, the first and only one for Murray—an execution. In 1896, in true Wild West fashion, saloonkeeper Charles Thiede was hung in a genuinely gruesome manner for the murder of his wife. While the territory of Utah had executed a few outlaws before Thiede, this was the first as a state, and it made national headlines.
Thiede’s life of crime can be traced in newspaper headlines years before the slaying of his wife. Thiede left his native Germany to serve in the navies of England and Chile, but after fighting against the Peruvians, Thiede hoped to find solace in his native land. Upon returning to Germany, he was immediately conscripted into the army, where he served as a cook, a profession he kept for the rest of his life. After military service, he married Mary Frank in 1884, and together they set off for a better life in America, settling in Sandy and having a child.
The ne’er-do-well Thiede, who had a fearsome temper, opened his first tavern, the Social Hall Saloon, in the fall of 1886 in downtown Salt Lake City. That same year, he was fined for punching a woman who had accidentally dropped a piece of paper into his lap. After being shut down for selling liquor without a license, or for selling it on a Sunday, Thiede opened, and was forced to close, numerous establishments.
By the early 1890s, Thiede was a regular before the court, usually losing his liquor license or being punished for assaulting someone. As a result, Salt Lake City was no longer a welcoming spot for Thiede, and the saloonkeeper saw prime opportunity to jump into the thriving bar scene along State Street in Murray. Finding a small patch of ground behind the Germania smelter on 4800 South, Thiede opened the West Side Saloon.
A notorious womanizer who welcomed prostitutes into his bar, Thiede was also known to frequently abuse his wife, Mary; even for rough-and-tumble Murray, that was not acceptable. The night before May 1, 1894, Mary had fled to a neighbor’s home after a violent fight. As she always had done before, she returned. But this time, she returned home to find a very drunken Charles, who was waiting for her with a butcher’s knife. He sliced her throat from ear to ear. Blood-splattered Thiede then went to Harry Hayne’s saloon, where he reportedly told the sheriff, “Well, I killed my wife last night.”
The next morning, a crowd swarmed the sheriff’s office, trying to carry out its own version of justice by lynching Thiede. The sheriff relocated his prisoner to the Salt Lake County jail, which was also in Murray. There, Thiede changed his story and claimed he was innocent. He told the judge he found her body in his house, and that her dying words were, “Oh, Charlie.”
The prosecutors, long familiar with the defendant, presented a forensically tight case, first pointing out that the victim could in no way talk, as her head was nearly cut off. They also argued that because Charles was covered in blood—meaning the heart would still need to be pumping in order for the blood to splatter on him—then he had to be with Mary, in their home, at the time of the murder. Found guilty, Thiede was sentenced to be hanged.
In 1896, Thiede’s time was up, but the sheriff wanted to try a new-and-improved way of hanging. Instead of the condemned being dropped through a trap door, Thiede was going to be hanged by an ingenious system of pulleys; he would stand on the ground, and a metal weight would yank him upward, snapping his neck.
Lawmen from around the West convened at the Salt Lake County jail to watch the new method in action. At the appointed time, Thiede, who still professed his innocence, was yanked up by the noose, but it failed to snap his neck. Instead, he hung on the gallows for 14 minutes, strangled to death. That hanging method was never used again.
Even in death, Thiede gained no sympathy. An arsonist burned his saloon down. The Salt Lake Herald-Republican reported that residents in Murray and Cottonwood Heights guarded their cemeteries to prevent his body from being interred there. Eventually, he was buried in Sandy City’s cemetery—but only for a day. He was disinterred at the request of Sandy residents and buried in a field adjacent to the graveyard.