By John Hernandez
Earl Gardner was an Apache Indian raised on the San Carlos Apache Reservation. On Dec. 6, 1935, Gardner committed a heinous crime of murder when he used an ax to kill his wife, Alice Dia Gardner, age 20, and his 28-day-old son Edward. He told the Indian police officer Salvador Grant who he surrendered to that “I wasn’t drunk this time. I was just crazy. My wife wanted me to take care of the baby again while she went off to church.”
Gardner had been released from prison two years prior to the killing for the murder of another Apache, Francis Knight. He had stabbed Knight in what was described as a “drunken frenzy.”
He was taken to the Gila County Jail in Globe. FBI agents were sent to investigate as the crime was committed on the federal reservation at San Carlos.
A preliminary hearing was held on Dec. 20. Gardner tried to plead guilty and confessed to the crime, saying “I picked up a hatchet and I struck her on the right side, then on the left side. The baby was in my arms. I walk out of tent, put baby down and struck once. I never look at baby.
“I walk back in the tent and strike Alice in the head once more. Still got hatchet. Walk out. Threw it on the ground.” He then told the judge “I don’t care whether you hang me or not.”
Judge Albert Sames refused his guilty plea and had him bound over for trial. He was held without bond. The trial began on Jan. 20, 1936. The next day Gardner took the stand and again confessed to the crime and told the jury to vote the death penalty for him. After 26 hours of deliberation, jurors could not come to an agreement. Ten voted for guilty and the death penalty while two voted for guilty and life imprisonment. The judge ordered a new hearing.
At the second trial, after deliberating for 30 minutes, the jury found Gardner guilty of 1st degree murder without a mercy recommendation which made it automatic that the death penalty would be imposed. On Feb. 13, Judge Sames sentenced Gardner to be hanged by the neck until dead. When asked prior to sentencing if he had anything to say, Gardner answered “I want you to get a good strong rope and have this happen immediately.”
After exhausting all his appeals, a final execution date was set for July 14, 1936. Gardner would be the first Native American hanged in Arizona since 1925. The Federal government would have to build gallows on the reservation as Arizona had changed their method of execution to lethal gas following the botched hanging of Eva Dugan in 1933, in which the woman was decapitated. Prior to the hanging, rumors were being spread that an uprising by the Apaches may be attempted to stop the execution. Extra security methods were taken and the location of the hanging was kept secret. More than 30 special deputies made up of county sheriffs, experienced lawmen and even reporters were sworn in to guard the dam and scaffolding. Each deputy was armed with a rifle and pistol.
The execution was set for 5:30 a.m. At 11 p.m. the night before, Gardner was taken from the jail at Globe and driven to a location on the San Carlos reservation in a box canyon a half mile from the Coolidge Dam. It was there that Gardner sat in the backseat of a car for nearly five hours awaiting the time for his hanging. No invitations were issued to the execution. Guards were positioned on the dam and all the road entrances. No Indians were allowed to attend the hanging.
The crude makeshift gallows were built next to an old abandoned crusher. After Gardner mounted the steps and stood on the trap door, his arms and legs were buckled with straps and a black mask was placed over his head. After Gardner’s final words “It’s over, I’m glad it’s over. That’s all”, Marshall McKinney gave the signal to the executioner to release the trap.
When the trap was released, Gardner’s body fell through the opening but his arm hit the side of the trap causing him to swing and bang his head on the other side of the trap breaking his fall. This prevented the fall from breaking his neck and providing him with a quick death. Gardner’s body was swinging and he could be heard gasping for air. After five minutes, the doctor checked Gardner’s heart with his stethoscope. It was still beating. Gardner could be heard wheezing. Some of the guards became uneasy. Marshal McKinney walked out of the room a few deputies followed him to get fresh air. After 21 minutes a few deputies lifted up Gardner and adjusted his rope then dropped him a few feet. After 33 minutes struggling to breathe, Gardner was pronounced dead by Doctor Snyder.
The bungled hanging resulted in what newspapers called an agonizing death for Gardner. In 1937, the U.S. Congress created a law authorizing federal authorities to use state or local facilities to executed federal prisoners sentenced to death. In Arizona they could use the gas chamber at Arizona State Prison in Florence. Gardner would be the last Native American to be hanged in Arizona.