Part 3: The Twisted Tale of Charles Wawsen

Read Part 1 and Part 2 first!

Charles Wawsen, now condemned to death, decided if he had to leave this life, he was going to go on his own terms. He reflected that he would prefer to kill himself than to give the state the satisfaction of hanging him in the prison yard of Schuylkill County prison.

Wawsen first tried to bleed himself to death. He obtained a string, and attempted by some unknown method to sever some organs in his body. A guard intervened. Wawsen then obtained several boxes of matches, cut the poisonous heads and stirred them into a glass of water and drank it. An employee of the prison was distributing dinner to the prisoners in their cells and heard Wawsen moaning in pain. The guards rushed to his cell and found him writhing up on the floor. A prison doctor managed to save him.

Schuylkill County Jail


Though the court was determined that Wawsen be put to death, it was equally determined that the state would be putting him to death. The prison was to take every precaution against suicide. Therefore, Wawsen was on 24-hour suicide watch from September until he was hanged in March, costing the county an additional $800.

Wawsen couldn’t quite resign himself to his fate. Now that every hope of relief from the state had been smashed, and he wasn’t even going to be able to kill himself, he spent his days explaining why his conviction was unfair. He had been insane, he maintained, and it was due to having several sun strokes while working in Argentina. Also, his attorneys should have allowed him to testify, he could have explained it all to the court’s satisfaction. He could have told them about his spells, when he didn’t quite know what he was doing. He should not be held responsible. His attorneys shook their heads: they did all they could for Wawsen but he shot the girl in front of more than a dozen witnesses, after threatening to kill her on a separate occasion. Nobody could explain it away.

The other topic that bothered Charles Wawsen was the fact that one of his brothers, Josef, never came to visit. Wawsen wanted to see him, but Josef never turned up. In the final few months of his life, he did have a regular visitor. Father Ziebara of the Polish Catholic Church in Minersville came to see Wawsen often, staying for hours, and talking to him to keep his mind off of his hanging. Because of Father Ziebara’s attention, Wawsen began to “deeply repent his shooting of Mary Bolinsky.”

He also gave attention to his art: a long-neglected interest. Most people who knew Wawsen assumed he was illiterate, probably because he didn’t speak English very well. They were shocked to learn that Wawsen was an excellent artist who spoke and wrote German, Polish, Spanish, and Lithuanian fluently. He drew pictures for the walls of his cell and for the people who came to visit him. He drew pictures of South America and Shenandoah, pictures of friends, and a picture of Francis Joseph, the Emperor of Austria. His most memorable picture was one of Hell. Satan was the centerpiece and Wawsen had included himself in the picture, being pitched into a boiling cauldron.

On March 12, 1908, 10 months after he murdered Mary Bolinsky, Charles Wawsen was summoned: his time had come. At 10:25 a.m., he was marched from his cell to the gallows in the prison yard. It was a gruesome spectacle. The prison employees and the official witnesses were in the yard. Beyond the prison walls, much of the town was gathered outside and people came in from miles away, with a morbid desire to see the prison on the day Wawsen was put to death.

Wawsen was marched up to the gallows, and addressed the crowd for 10 minutes, recounting his crime and saying he knew he was bound for a better world. When they bound his legs, he fainted. The prison officials revived him with a glass of water. Just before the spring was to drop, he fainted a second time. He was again revived and began to cry out for “Josef!” Then a dark covering was placed over his head, and the hanging was carried out.

Details about final arrangements for Wawsen were printed but there were more pressing concerns for the prison officials both inside and outside the grim walls.

Before it could be occupied by a new prisoner, the cell Wawsen occupied had to be re-kalsomined (a kind of white wash used to clean and refinish walls and ceilings). This was a deep clean, not an ordinary cleaning, due to a paralyzing superstition amongst the prisoners that murderers executed on the gallows can leave some bad mojo in their cells which would attach itself to the next occupant.

Meanwhile, the crowd outside pestered the sheriff with requests for pieces of the rope used to hang Wawsen. Once again, this was due to a superstition the locals harbored that such a rope contains virtues, and is capable of curing diseases.

That closes the twisted case of Charles Wawsen.

3 thoughts on “Part 3: The Twisted Tale of Charles Wawsen

  1. Pingback: Part 2: The Twisted Tale of Charles Wawsen – old spirituals

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