I think, maybe, if Wallace Wilkerson (above) had known a little of the history of the game of cribbage, then William Baxter might have died of old age, instead of in his forties when two metal balls were forcibly inserted into his brain. Honestly, the scoring in cribbage is so complicated, it seems to have been invented by a card shark. Which it was. So a little information, and a little self awareness, might have saved Wallace himself from a very painful, and slow death. Maybe. But then, people are not their intellect, but their personalities. And Wallace's personality was that of a foul mouthed, short tempered alcoholic. Not that dissimilar from the inventor of cribbage.
The charming and witty Sir John Suckling (above), who invented cribbage, quickly dissipated his substantial inheritance on gambling, wine, woman and poems. He rebuilt it by investing in elaborate decks of marked playing cards. Suckling sent these Trojan gifts to several of his wealthier landed gentry "friends". Then, when he later dropped by for a visit, his hosts invariably brought out his gifts for a friendly game of cribbage, with a friendly wager, of course. And that was how John Suckling amassed his new fortune of twenty thousand pounds, even tho “no shopkeeper would trust him for sixpence.”
On 11 June, 1877 the 100 odd denizens of Homansville, Utah were living at 6,000 feet, up a canyon two miles north east of Eureka. That Monday afternoon there were nine or ten men talking, smoking and drinking in James Hightower's general store and saloon, mostly teamsters who carted potable water to the 120 mines in the surrounding Tintic Mountains. As the temperature struggled to take the chill off the air, and the water tanks at the wells were slowly re-filled, the primary entertainment was two men seated at a small table, playing cribbage.
Cribbage is usually played by just two players, each dealt six cards. They retain four, their joint discard forming the “Crib”. The top card in the remaining deck is turned over, becoming the starter. . All face cards are worth ten points, the ace just one. The non-dealer begins by laying one of his cards atop the starter, while announcing the cumulative value of those two cards. Players alternate, adding the numerical value of the cards, up to thirty-one. Why thirty-one? Why not?
The popular William Baxter, who normally tended bar in Eureka, was seated on an upturned beer barrel, his cheek resting in his right palm as he was recovering from a previous night of drinking. He was a “pleasant and peaceable man” - when he was sober. Drunk,. he was a violent bully, according to Wallace, and prone to pulling a gun to get his way, although he does not seem to have ever shot anyone. One of William's best customers in Eureka had been the tall, thin 43 year old Wallace Wilkerson, who now sat across the small table from him in Hightower's store . But William had previously pulled a gun on Wallace, and even insulted him by calling him a “California Mormon”. Or so said Wallace. And yet, here they were, playing a game of cribbage. And Wallace was losing.
When a player cannot lay down a card without going over “31”, the opponent scores “1” point, called a go. Once all eight cards have been played, the dealer picks up the “crib”, and adds those points to his or her total. After the score is recorded by moving pegs in a cribbage board, the deal then passes to the second player.
It is unclear why Baxter was in Homansville. Wallace was there to visit his brothers, who worked at the wells in the four year old town. None of Wilkerson's or Baxter's relatives were in James Hightower's establishment that Monday, and I don't think the witnesses had any influence upon the the events, which began when Baxter observed that Wallace had moved his peg in the cribbage board too many spaces.
Beyond the single point awarded for coming closest to reaching “31”, an additional point is awarded for hitting “31” exactly, and “2” for hitting “15” exactly. If a player lays down a card matching the suit of the previous card, they call out, “That's “1” for the go, and “2” for a double.” If the next card by either player also follows suit, that player says, “That's “2” for a double and “3” for a triple.” A fourth matching suit card, even if played in the next “31” is called as a quad and counts for a total of “10” points. All of these are cumulative, as in “1” for the go, “2” for fifteen, “1” for the “31” and “2” for the double, etc. Adding in the many sometimes obscure additional points that can be called out in the flush of the contest, almost always without a pencil and paper tally, makes the game quick, meteoric, exuberant, confusing and tension filled. In other words, the scoring seems to have been designed by a card shark. The first player to reach 121 points is declared the winner. Why 121, I have no idea. I do know that the first player to be shot and killed is the loser.
Hearing William's accusation about his misplaced peg, Wallace pushed his chair back from the table, stood up and claimed he was being cheated. As Wallace started to take off his jacket, preparing for a fight, the unimpressed William Baxter merely said “Sit down, Wilkerson, and don't make a fool out of yourself.” At that, Wallace drew a small pistol from his jacket and shot William in the face. The victim fell backward, against the flour bags. Wallace strode through the black powder smoke and grabbed a hand full of William's hair, lifting his head. Wallace pressed the gun's muzzle against William's right temple, and fired again, literally blowing William Baxter's brains out. Then Wallace ran out of the store.
The inventor of cribbage, Sir John Suckling, should have died like a character from a Felding novel, an ancient retired reprobate, safely ensconced in his estates, surrounded by dutiful if not respectful servants. Instead, his mercenary morality finally drove him to plot too obvious a crime. Escaping just ahead of the authorities, Sir Suckling fled so quickly he had to leave his fortune behind. Within a few weeks he realized that life without his 'raison d art', his one true love, his money, was not worth living, and he self administered poison. He died alone in May of 1641 at 32 years of age, flat broke, vomiting away his life in a dingy Paris apartment. But, unfortunately for Wallace Wilkerson, before Suckling died, he invented cribbage.
Wallace Wilkerson was arrested and taken north to the village of Goshen, to avoid a lynching party. His defense was that William Baxter could have been carrying a gun. The only problem was, he wasn't. The only weapon found on the victim was a small pocket knife. Wallace seemed indifferent to the outcome of his November trial, but after his conviction he told Judge P. H. Emerson, “When I did the shooting I supposed my life was in danger.” He also claimed the witnesses had lied. Judge Emerson was no more impressed by the theatrics than Baxter had been, and ordered that Wallace was to be executed in December. At the time, the Territory of Utah had a choice in killing Wallace: he could be hung, shot or beheaded. Unfortunately for Wallace, the court chose the firing squad.
The results were delayed for over a year when Wallace's lawyers appealed his sentence to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying execution by firing squad was a cruel and unusual punishment, denied by the U.S. Constitution.. During his time in jail in Salt Lake City, Wallace was deemed to be “the most foul mouthed and profane man” in the prison. In March of 1878 the Supreme Court held, by an unanimous vote, that death by a firing squad was not a cruel or unusual punishment. So, at about noon on 16 May, 1879, Wallace was led into the yard behind the Provo, Utah county courthouse and jail (above). Wallace was wearing a black suit, topped with his habitual white ten gallon hat, and smoking a cigar, donated by a sympathetic family member. And he was swaggering, because he had been drinking since his long suffering wife Amilia had left him an hour earlier.
The sheriff led Wallace to a chair, set out away from the courthouse wall. Wallace insisted he not be tied to it, and he refused a blindfold, saying “I give you my word, I intend to die like a man, looking my executioners right in the eye.” Except he could not do that. Thirty feet away a barricade had been constructed, pierced by four rectangles, just large enough to accommodate the protruding rifle barrels. The gunmen were hidden from Wallace's drunken challenging stare. But they had a clear view of him. Or thought they did.
After the sentence was read, Wallace was asked if he had anything to say. In a slurred speech, he assured the 20 men present within the yard that he bore them no ill will, but insisted again that the witnesses at his trial had lied. The sheriff pinned a three inch square piece of white paper above Wallace's heart, as a target, and then stepped aside. Wallace called out, “Aim for my heart, Marshal!" The four riflemen aimed at the white target, and their commander quietly gave the order. Four men pulled the triggers, and four bullets raced toward Wallace Wilkerson's chest.
At the impact of the lead, Wallace jumped “five or six feet” from the chair, screaming in pain. After staggering a step, Wallace shouted, "Oh, my God! My God! They've missed it!", as he pitched over, face first into the dirt. Four doctors rushed to the condemned man's side. Wallace was moaning in agony. On examination the doctors found that one round had shattered Wallace's left arm, and the other three had pounded into Wallace's chest, all missing his heart. They now faced a quandary. What do you do if the condemned man survives the execution? Do you minister his wounds? Do you shoot him again? While these discussions continued, Wallace lay in the dirt, moaning and writhing for almost 30 minutes. Some timed his death throes at 27 minutes, others at twenty. Finally, Wallace did the right thing. He died.
At last Wallace Wilkerson was as dead as William Baxter. The only difference was that while the reprobate Wallace was solely and fully responsible for the death of William Baxter, the entire territory of Utah and its taxpayers, and the nine judges on the U.S. Supreme Court, were all responsible for the botched execution and slow painful death of Wallace Wilkerson. The process of state sponsored death seems, at least in this case, to have been designed by a drunken sadist.