Professional Baseball's First Execution

Published August 01, 2021
Professional Baseball's First Execution
The Tragic Case of Charles "Pacer" Smith

No matter how it might seem to us today, when we expect more from our so-called “heroes” than we usually get – the idea of professional athletes getting mixed up with the law is nothing new. In fact, incidents of violent crimes go back almost to the beginning of professional sports. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, four major league baseball players committed murder. Edgar McNabb and Marty Bergen killed themselves before they could be brought to trial, and Charlie Sweeney spent several years in San Quentin Prison. 

And on November 29, 1895, former professional pitcher Charles “Pacer” Smith was hanged for the murder of his daughter and sister-in-law – a bloody act that shocked my hometown of Decatur, Illinois. It was a terrible event that left a black mark on the city’s history – and left behind two separate hauntings in its wake. 

Charles N. Smith was born in Pendleton, Indiana, on August 4, 1853. He was the fourth of ten children of John and Rebecca Smith. John Smith was a shoemaker who joined the Union Army shortly after the start of the Civil War. In late 1864, he was thrown from his horse and reportedly spent six months in a hospital. He never completely recovered from the injury; the Decatur Daily Review described him as "practically a cripple." 

Family members described Charles as a very bright boy with a penchant for sports, although he never played professionally until he was 23. The game of baseball was just beginning to be popular during his early manhood he naturally drifted into that profession. He had earned a good reputation as a pitcher and was offered and accepted a position with the Cincinnati Red Stockings. 

Smith started his professional career in the mid-1870s. Although he was the property of the Cincinnati major league team, he never appeared in a regular season major league contest. His playing time was apparently confined to exhibition games (which were frequent during those seasons) and action with area independent teams. Even so, Smith’s play in Cincinnati was enough to get him noticed and he spent the next few seasons in cities that would later have major league or strong minor league teams. He played for the Baltimore Blues in 1878 and 1879, and Nashville in 1880. He then returned to Indiana, spending 1881 with Terre Haute and the next two seasons with Indianapolis, both of the Northwestern League. Not retained when Indianapolis got major league baseball in 1884, Smith stayed in the area with the Noblesville team that year. In 1885, he played for clubs in Jacksonville, Florida and Greencastle and Evansville, Indiana.

During the early 1880s, John and Rebecca Smith separated, though they apparently remained married. Rebecca Smith and three of her children moved west to Illinois. Settling first in Danville and Mattoon, they eventually moved to the Decatur area. Initially, Charles lived with a married sister in Indianapolis, but in 1886 he moved to Decatur to pitch for the local team.

When Smith was recruited to come to Decatur in the late 1880s, the city’s once-outstanding professional baseball team, the Yellow Hammers, was foundering at the bottom of its division. “Pacer” Smith was known for his infamous fastball and style on the ball field. He was lured to Decatur in hopes that he could revive the ailing team but no one had any idea that his residency in the city would end in horrible tragedy and murder. 

Smith managed to revive the dreadful Yellow Hammers during the 1887 season and became quite popular around town, especially with the ladies. He was a smooth talker, a flashy dresser, widely traveled, and famous for his curling, handlebar mustache. He also became known for his drinking and could often be found, when not on the baseball field, in one of the local taverns.

In 1888, Smith married one of his female fans, a young Decatur woman named Maggie Buchert. Unfortunately, that year brought bad news to Smith when the Yellow Hammers disbanded. He began searching for work and his drinking became worse. Over the next several years, Smith played for baseball clubs in cities all over Illinois, including Champaign, Bloomington, Ottawa, and Shreveport. He made several attempts to get back into the larger leagues, but his once lightning fast pitching had slowed down and rumors began to spread about his heavy drinking.

In 1890, Smith’s wife, Maggie, became pregnant and gave birth to a baby girl named Louise. Soon after, Smith realized that married life was not to his liking and his drinking became even worse. He spent little time at home, choosing to frequent the saloons when not traveling out of town to play baseball. By 1893, he was considered completely unreliable by the more reputable clubs and he was forced to play baseball in Pana, Illinois, where he also served as a town policeman. After the end of the season, he was fired from both jobs and returned to look for work in Decatur. The once nationally known baseball player was soon working as a cook at the Hoffman House, and other Franklin and Park Streets taverns, setting out free lunches for drinking men. It was a long fall from the fame that he once enjoyed as a professional baseball player.

Smith’s drinking and his increasing bitterness destroyed his marriage. Maggie finally decided to leave him and, with her daughter, moved back into her father’s home at 758 East Lawrence Street. She told Smith that he was welcome to come and see Louise anytime that he liked and, while he never contributed any sort of support for his wife and daughter, he did visit on a fairly regular basis. The rest of his life continued to deteriorate. His drinking grew steadily worse and eventually, it would be alcohol that would ruin him for good. 

On Saturday, September 28, 1895, Smith spent the entire day drinking in a saloon on South Park Street. He was a regular customer, so he had little trouble convincing the bartender to loan him his revolver. He left the tavern and went to the home of his father-in-law, Frank Buchert, where Maggie, Louisa and Maggie’s sister, Edna, also lived. When he arrived there, he asked for his daughter but Louise was not there at the time. Edna offered to go and look for her and she went off down the street, leaving Smith waiting on the front porch. Louise, who was six years old at the time, was playing with friends in a neighbor’s yard, but Edna brought her back home to see her father. Witnesses later testified that Smith never gave any inclination that he was upset about anything – or that he planned to kill anyone. 

The house where the Bucherts lived was a one-story structure with a high basement. When Edna returned with the child, they sat down on the steps together. Smith was standing nearby and Maggie had also come out to visit. She was standing on the steps a few feet away. Then, suddenly and without any warning, Smith removed the borrowed revolver from his coat and fired at his daughter. The shot struck Louise in the neck and she made a loud, choking cry as she pitched forward and rolled down the stairs to land at her father’s feet. Maggie and Edna, utterly terrified, screamed and scrambled up the stairs and away from the gun. Smith fired a second shot at Maggie and it narrowly missed her, lodging in the ceiling of the front porch. She began to scream for help, rushing away from the house and in the direction of Jacobs’ Butcher Shop, where her father worked, a half-block away.

The exact manner of Edna Buchert’s murder will never be known as Smith was the only witness and he never told. The only thing that can be stated for certain is that Smith turned his gun on her and fired one time. She was struck near the back door of the house and she ran around to the east side of the house and fell dead on the front walk. Her father found her there, covered in blood, a short time later. 

Maggie narrowly escaped the violence. She burst through the door of the butcher shop, screaming, “Charlie has shot Louise!” Frank Buchert immediately ran to his house, where he discovered Edna on the sidewalk. Buchert dropped to his knees and pulled Edna to him in a grief-stricken embrace. He called her name several times but it was too late, the young woman was already dead. Buchert looked up and saw Charles Smith standing just a short distance away. He was coldly gazing at the scene, the smoking revolver still in his hand. Buchert pleaded with Smith to tell him why he would have done such a terrible thing. Smith gave him an angry reply, “You be a little careful, or I’ll give you your own dose of lead.”

Buchert laid Edna’s body carefully on the ground and, his hands crimson with his daughter’s blood, he ran to the fallen body of his granddaughter. Louise was unconscious, but still alive, although she was bleeding badly. He picked her up and carried her into the house, gently placing her on a bed. By this time, neighbors had started to gather and one of the men carried Edna’s body into the house and placed her on a lounge in the living room. 

With one last glance at the Buchert house, “Pacer” Smith walked calmly and slowly down the street in the direction of the butcher shop, possibly looking for his wife. Luckily, he never found her.

A telephone call was made to the police headquarters from the Jacobs’ store and details were passed along about the crime, along with the identity of the murderer. Chief Mason and Officer Howard Williams jumped into a buggy and headed down Broadway (present-day Martin Luther King Boulevard) toward the Buchert home. Deputy Sheriff Frank Taylor and Officer Cross went down Webster Street in search of the killer. At Clay Street, they ran into Mr. Jacobs, Frank Buchert’s employer, who had been following the killer. He told the officers that Smith had started walking north. Moments later, they saw Smith heading into a nearby alley and both men jumped from the buggy and ran toward him, just in time to see him disappear into a yard. Both men drew their revolvers, expecting a fight, as they advanced on him.

As the officers rounded the corner of a house, they were surprised to see Smith walking toward them. He held the revolver in his right hand and when Cross grabbed hold of him, he released it. He offered no resistance and when Cross asked him why he had done it, his only reply was “he had had lots of trouble and he had finally put an end to it all.”

Chief Mason and Officer Williams arrived a few moments later and helped take Smith into custody. He was taken to the jail and, within thirty minutes after the murder, the killer was behind bars. Smith was charged with Edna Buchert’s killing. He was charged with a second murder on Monday morning, when Louise died from her wound. 

Word quickly spread through Decatur about the brutal murders – and about the famous killer. The excitement was intense and lynching was freely spoken of on the streets and in the taverns and saloons. Even police officers were upset and angry over the crime. Officer Brockway, who was described as “one of the oldest and most reliable men on the police force,” rushed at Smith when he was first brought to the jail and tried to attack him with his billy-club. Other officers restrained him, but they did so reluctantly. Brockway was the uncle of Maggie and Edna Buchert and only the cooler heads of the other officers kept him from killing Smith with his bare hands.

Shortly after Smith was locked up, he was interrogated by Sheriff I.P. Nicholson. On Saturday night, he refused to talk. His replies to questions that were asked by Nicholson were disjointed and strange. Nicholson asked, “What was the matter with you today, ‘Pacer’?”

“What have I done? I don’t know what you mean,” Smith replied.

Nicholson was incensed. “Don’t attempt that. You haven’t got sense enough to play crazy. You had better ‘fess up and tell the whole story, and it will go better for you,” he said.

But Smith just shook his head and refused to explain the reasons behind what he had done. “I have had lots of trouble but it’s all over now. I’m sick now but will tell you all about it tomorrow,” he said.

The newspapers reported that Smith became sick that night and his “entire faculties seemed to collapse.” The police feared that he was being seized by delirium from alcohol (everyone was aware of his heavy drinking) but the next morning, he seemed to rally and his health improved. In spite of this, he never kept his promise to Sheriff Nicholson and refused to explain why he had shot Louise and Edna. In fact, his only regret over the course of the next few days was that he had been unable to kill his wife.

On Monday, following the death of Louise, a grand jury indicted Smith for both murders. That afternoon, he was taken into court and arraigned for trial. Attorneys Bunn and Park were appointed to defend him, but they asked to be excused and I.A. Buckingham was appointed in their place. On Wednesday, Smith was brought into court, where he entered a guilty plea for the murder of Louise. However, he stated that he was not guilty for Edna’s murder, apparently believing that since he meant to kill his wife, not his sister-in-law, he was less accountable for the brutal crime. 

On Monday, October 8, Smith was brought back into court to have his sentence pronounced. After hearing evidence from a number of witnesses, Judge Vail asked Smith’s attorney if he had a statement that he wanted to make on behalf of his client. Buckingham and Smith held a whispered conversation for a few moments and then Smith stood and asked to speak. He spoke quietly in a calm voice that was almost impossible to hear. His voice faltered several times as he made his statement.

“I borrowed the gun and went down there to kill the lady and the child – my wife. I understood that if I plead guilty that I would be hung and I am willing to do it, but would like to have it put off until the 16th of February. I am willing to face anybody and everybody,” he said.

Smith then took his seat again and wiped the perspiration that had beaded on his forehead with a black silk handkerchief. The judge asked Buckingham if he had anything that he wanted to add and the attorney stated that he didn’t. 

Judge Vail then spoke. “When a man pleads guilty to murder in the first degree as is charged in this indictment, he places himself at the discretion of the court to be sentenced, to be hanged or to be confined in the penitentiary for life or for a term not less than 14 years. I can see that a man can be so injured, or so abused that his wrongs may so weigh upon him until he imagines that he is in a way justified in murder. But it is not apparent that there was any ill feeling in this family. I cannot imagine how any man could have any ill feeling or hold any hatred that would cause him to willfully take the life of a mere child. In my judgment, this is a case where justice demands the extreme penalty of the law, but it is not an easy task. The law is the highest exponent that teaches the duty of one citizen to another and no man has the right to take the law into his own hands. Now, if Mr. Smith has anything to say in extenuating him from this crime, then I want to hear it,” he said.

Smith only shook his head. He would never speak about why he had committed the murders.

The judge then ordered Smith to stand as he passed sentence. “It is the sentence of this court that you be taken back to the Macon County jail, and there be securely confined, until the twenty-ninth day of November, when you shall be taken out and hanged by the neck until dead,” he said.

During the pronouncement of the sentence, Smith stared silently at the judge. He stood completely still, a blank expression on his face. It was not until the judge was finished that color came back into his face. He slumped in what seemed to be relief, bowed his head and whispered, “Thank you.”

The silence of courtroom as shattered, though, by the piercing tones of a woman’s voice. A murmur of approval rippled through the courtroom as Maggie Smith cried out, “Thank God, he has got his just dues. My baby, oh, my baby!” Many of those in attendance that day later stated that they would never forget her words, or the crushing grief that could be heard in her voice. 

Maggie then burst into tears and was comforted by several friends. Frank Buchert, who was next to her, sprang from his seat and turning to the crowd said, “That is all I want; the law will give him what he deserves.”

Smith was hustled out of the courtroom and the crowd parted as he walked out between Sheriff Nicholson and Deputy Holmes. As he passed a group of his friends from the taverns, he made the motion of putting a rope around his neck and pretended to pull it tight. He laughed, “The twenty-ninth of November, boys.”

When he was outside, he told the sheriff that he was perfectly happy with the sentence and only feared that he would be given a life sentence in the penitentiary instead. He never explained why he had asked for the hanging to be delayed until February.

Smith was removed from his common cell at the jail that afternoon and taken to a solitary cell in the upstairs portion of the building. The following afternoon, he was visited by Father Charles Brady, the assistant pastor of St. Patrick’s Church. The young priest spoke to Smith at length about his spiritual welfare. Father Brady returned several times over the course of the next few days and, a week later, Smith was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. Smith seemed to feel a great deal better after the service and the newspapers reported, “Despite what may be said to the contrary, Smith ever after his baptism seemed to feel better and bore up under the ordeal of awaiting his last day with remarkable fortitude.”

Smith remained incarcerated in his solitary cell, until, about two weeks before his execution; he was placed on “death watch,” which meant that he was constantly under guard. Deputy Sam Stabler performed the duty during the daytime and Tom Richardson stayed with Smith at night. Smith grew especially fond of Stabler and often spoke of him to reporters. Shortly before his death, he told one newspaper reporter, “The sheriff has been just as kind to me as I could wish. Anything I want, I get. A man could not treat a guest better than Sheriff Nicholson does me. Sam Stabler is all right, too. He is the same old fellow every day and we get along all right.”

Thursday, November 28, was Smith’s last Thanksgiving. He was in good spirits, visited with his priest and his family and ate a hearty dinner of turkey with oyster dressing, gravy, sweet and Irish potatoes, a piece of pie and a large glass of milk. His father, mother, brothers, and several sisters stayed with him in his cell for several hours, but when his mother started to leave, she collapsed with grief and had to be escorted out by the officers on duty.
Around 3:00 p.m., Smith’s brother. J.E. Smith, went to the Buchert home and tried to convince Maggie and Frank Buchert to come to the jail and see Smith one last time. Both of them refused. Father Brady stayed with Smith throughout the remainder of the day and promised to return the next morning with Father Higgins of Taylorville to give Smith communion one last time.

Smith rose early on the morning of November 29. He ate breakfast and then took a short nap in his cell. He told reporters that he did this so that he would feel better about his ordeal at noon. One of the reporters asked him if he had heard about a reprieve that had recently been granted to another prisoner and Smith said that he had, noting that the man’s death sentence had been commuted after he became a Christian and was baptized. Smith had written a letter to the man and he claimed this had been the key to the prisoner’s religious conversion. When Smith was asked what he would say to a reprieve for himself, he snapped his fingers and said, “I don’t care that much. I am all ready to go.”

Just before noon, Sheriff Nicholson came to Smith’s cell and read aloud his death warrant. Father Brady and Father Higgins stood nearby and Smith listened calmly. The sheriff led the procession to the jail yard, where a scaffold stood. Hundreds of people from Decatur came to see the gallows on Thursday afternoon, streaming in and out of the yard to see the “infernal device” that would claim Smith’s life. On the day of the execution, only about 300 ticket-holders were allowed to witness the hanging.

As the procession climbed the stairs, reporters noted that Smith was “pale but determined.” The two priests prayed with him a tamat time and then the hood and the noose were slipped over his head. Under the platform, three doctors waited to pronounce Smith dead. A few moments later, Smith plunged to his doom. It was the last public hanging in Macon County, Illinois history.

It was obvious to everyone who knew him in his simpulan days that “Pacer” Smith wanted to die for the crimes that he had committed. He would never speak of what led him to commit the brutal crime of shooting his own child and trying to murder his wife and killing his sister-in-law instead. Whatever drove him to it, he seemed to believe that death was the only thing that would ease his conscience and assuage his guilt.

But was death enough? According to the legend of Charles “Pacer” Smith, it was not.

After the body was cut down, and Smith was pronounced dead, he was taken to the Martin Funeral Home and then delivered to his mother’s house for the wake. Services were held at St. Patrick’s Church and Smith was buried in Calvary Cemetery, on West Eldorado Street. The pallbearers for the service were former team members of Smith’s from his days with the Yellow Hammers. 

Ever since his burial, the legend states that Smith’s ghost has been seen walking in Cavalry Cemetery, dressed in an old-time baseball uniform from his days of glory. It has been said that he refuses to rest in peace, still tormented, even in death by the horrible deeds that he committed in life. 

The scene of Smith’s crimes has also been reportedly haunted over the years. According to tenants in the house on East Lawrence Street, the ghostly echoes of a woman’s screams were heard for decades, followed by the pounding of footsteps on the porch, as if Edna Burchert was still running for her life, fleeing from her crazed and murderous brother-in-law.


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