There’s an open area behind the main office at Greenwood Memorial Terrace, back by the hillside and beyond the upright headstones, where an unmarked grave contains the remains of Charles Brooks, the first man officially hanged in Spokane.
The site is unmarked because at the time of the execution – Sept. 6, 1892 – no one came forward to pay for a marker. It will remain unmarked, according to Duane Broyles, president of the Fairmount Memorial Association, Greenwood’s parent company, because they don’t want to attract disrespectful curiosity seekers to the site.
Certainly, other men were hanged before Brooks back in Spokane’s early days – perhaps the most well-known of whom was Chief Qualchan of the Yakama Tribe, by Col. George Wright in September 1858. But Brooks holds the distinction of being the first of four men officially executed by legal hanging in Spokane County – not that he probably appreciated the distinction.
Late in the 19th century, the death penalty was carried out at the local level under the guidance of the sheriff of the county in which the crime took place. But not long after the fourth hanging in Spokane in 1900, state law mandated that executions take place at the state penitentiary at Walla Walla.
The story of the murder committed by Brooks was detailed in the newspaper. Brooks, a 62-year-old black man, was convicted of shooting his estranged wife, Christine Dohlman, 27, a Swedish immigrant, on Havermale Island in downtown Spokane on July 5, 1891. There is quite a bit of speculation in the printed story – that Brooks wanted to marry a white woman, that Dohlman was a gold digger who wanted to wed a rich man and that after marrying Brooks and learning he wasn’t wealthy, she left him. He allegedly stalked her; she rejected him and, finally, he shot her, the story goes. After he was convicted, appeals of the death sentence were rejected and the execution proceeded.
His public execution was quite the event. About 150 formal invitations – engraved and looking very much like today’s wedding invitations – were issued, and more than 1,000 people attended. Reporting was extensive, with accounts noting that Brooks made lengthy remarks, requested and was given a Prince Albert coat to wear for the occasion and that he shook hands with all those assembled on the scaffold. There were prayers and hymns and then the hanging took place.
In his book “Life Behind the Badge: The Spokane Police Department’s Founding Years, 1881-1903,” historian Tony Bamonte provides detail of this and the other three executions by hanging. Chinese immigrant Gin Pong was convicted of the March 14, 1896, hatchet murder of fellow immigrant Lee Tung and was hanged for it on April 30, 1897. Area farmer George Webster was convicted of killing his wife’s boss, Lize Aspland, in May 1897, and was hanged in 1900.
The first three executions occurred on the Spokane County Courthouse grounds. The fourth, that of Edward Mayberry, who was convicted of killing Alice Vivian on the Colville Indian Reservation, took place in 1917 at Fort George Wright – because both parties were part Indian and the case fell under federal jurisdiction.
Brooks, Webster and Mayberry are buried at Greenwood; Pong’s burial site is not known.
A fifth man, H.D. Smith, was set to be hanged for killing Spangle farmer John Wyatt, but escaped while waiting for the outcome of an appeal in 1895. He is said to have jumped into the fast-flowing Spokane River and been rescued from the water by a fisherman who responded to the shouts of law enforcement officers who were closing in. Realizing he had been caught, Smith took out a knife and killed himself, thus beating the hangman, according to the historical account.
Though unmarked, Brooks’ grave is still a landmark in its own way – an invisible spot denoting the first official hanging in the county, a violent crime followed by a violent end for the criminal. The cemetery grounds that hold his and the remains of the others looks so tranquil, indeed peaceful, a stark contrast to the events that brought them there.