Milward Simpson and the Death Penalty
On March 27, 1957, when Gov. Milward L. Simpson commuted the death sentence of Herschel Clay “Tricky” Riggle, he did so because the Wyoming Constitution gave him that power. But more importantly, he did so because, as he related in his statement, he did not believe in capital punishment. With the stroke of his pen, he left his legacy in Wyoming political history.
When Simpson’s name comes up, Tricky Riggle’s often does also. Simpson’s friends and family will argue it was the governor’s stand on capital punishment that cost him re-election in 1958. However, a closer look at the election results and other challenges Simpson faced, including controversies over the proposed route of Interstate 90 and Teton County gambling, make it clear there were other factors at play as well.
Taxes: a contentious issue
As with any administration, taxes were a sore spot. In 1945 Wyoming was home to approximately 3,500 men and women who had served in the armed services. To express gratitude for their service, the state legislature granted a $2,000 exemption on assessed property value to all veterans living in the state. Simpson was elected in 1954. When he took office in 1955 and saw the likely loss of revenue to the state from the various tax exemptions, he knew that if they continued, a raise in taxes was inevitable.
At the same time he recognized the political stickiness of pitting one exemption against another: The homestead exemption versus the veteran’s exemption is one example. In letters to the governor, veterans expressed their anger toward the possible reduction or abolishing of this exemption. Especially with World War II still a close memory, they felt it was diminishing the significance of their service, and was also a threat to their finances.
In response, Simpson expressed his gratitude for their service and attempted to lessen their money concerns by explaining the loss of the exemption would not make for a major change in their tax bills. Especially when spread out over 12 months, the cost could seem even less of a hardship. In many of his replies, Simpson shared results of the data he had collected on the exemptions, and expressed with trepidation his worry that the large veteran’s exemption would attract other veterans to Wyoming, thereby costing the state more dollars. In the end, the 1955 Legislature reduced to $800 the benefit a veteran can derive from the $2,000 property tax exemption, and abolished the $500 property tax homestead exemption. In some cases, this may have been a double hit to a family.
Choosing a route for I-90
In 1956, Simpson faced an issue involving the federal government’s Federal Highway Act. Its goal was to implement a system for quick, reliable and safer transcontinental travel—what we now call the interstate highway system. As part of the act, and to help fund the program, the plan stipulated that each level of government would contribute to the upgrading of the nation’s road network. To achieve this goal, states were required to “hold public meetings to consider the economic effects of the location if a Federal-aid highway involved bypassing or going through a city, town, or village.”
One of the three major routes planned to cross Wyoming was Interstate 90, a major highway from Boston to Seattle. The highway was to enter the northeastern corner of Wyoming, connect with what is now Interstate 25 at Buffalo, Wyo., head north to Billings, Mont., then west to Seattle. Much to the concern of the town of Sheridan, Wyo., this plan would make Buffalo a control area on the interstate highway between Gillette, Wyo., and Sheridan. That designation would mean more signs would be posted on the interstate about Buffalo than would have been otherwise.
In May, a public meeting was held in Sheridan. Federal and state highway department representatives heard delegations from Sheridan and Buffalo give opposing views.The meeting marked the start of a year-long campaign to move the control area to Sheridan. During the year, delegations from Sheridan attended State Highway Commission meetings, and gave presentations showing that locating the control area in Buffalo would be a significant economic impact for their community. If Sheridan did not appear as a destination on the traffic signs on the route, Sheridan delegates feared, people would be more likely to stay the night in Buffalo before driving on up and through Sheridan on the way to Yellowstone National Park.
In one meeting the Sheridan group proposed that I-90 would follow the existing route of U.S. Highway 14 between Gillette and Sheridan, which bypasses Buffalo. In a later meeting, a group of ranchers from Johnson County, where Buffalo is located, protested this idea. At all of these meetings the state commissioners explained that they could only recommend a route, and the federal Bureau of Public Roads would make the final decision.
In a 1992 interview with the New Yorker, Milward Simpson’s son, U.S. Sen. Al Simpson, relates a colorful story of a meeting in the governor’s office between his father and a delegation from Sheridan. As Al eavesdrops on the conversation, the group tells Simpson they would hate to vote him out of office, if he did not step in and recommend their proposed route change. They told him he needed to step in on behalf of the survival of his wife’s hometown. According to the interview, Milward Simpson was deeply insulted by their request and sent them on their way.
In January 1957, the commissioners made their final decision, agreeing with the recommended route, making Buffalo, not Sheridan, the control area.
Just as the interstate highway issue closed and others came to the fore, one group would show their hand, letting the chips fall where they would. Gambling was common in Teton County, just south of Yellowstone and home to Grand Teton National Park. Tourists were enchanted by Jackson and recalled it as being “like the stories of the Old West.”
A Great Northwest Life Insurance agency from Spokane, Wash., had scheduled their agency convention for Aug. 15, 1956, in Jackson because of the extra attraction—gambling. Even though it was illegal, previous administrations and the public had either ignored it, condoned it or helped keep it alive. Local businesses saw gambling as a tourist attraction; it brought both money and people into the state and community.
Gambling in Teton County existed not so much because of the illegal participants, but by virtue of local and statewide public support. No one complained; that is, until the July 1956 meeting of the Wyoming County Attorneys Association, a meeting Simpson and his Attorney General George Guy attended. Association members expressed concerns about gambling and liquor violations in Teton County, feeling there was a risk that it would spread to their counties.
Following the meeting, guided by state laws, Simpson laid out a methodical plan to clean up the lawlessness in Jackson, his hometown. Simpson and his attorney general launched an investigation. By the time it was all over, the state filed charges of “misconduct and malfeasance” against the Teton County sheriff.
In addition, the State Liquor Commission charged four Jackson bars with liquor violations regarding hours and gambling. In a legal compromise the sheriff resigned from office, and charges were dropped. To bring closure to the liquor violations, the Liquor Commission passed judgment on the four establishments, revoking their licenses for 45 days each. To prevent more discord in the community the disciplinary measures were staggered, allowing two of the businesses to remain open while the others were shut, and vice versa. 
“Tricky” Riggle sentenced
Nine months prior to Simpson’s taking office, a Platte County trick roper and county fair act named Herschel Clay “Tricky” Riggle shot and killed his fiancée, Frances Williamson and local ranch hand Walter Akerblade in a Wheatland, Wyo., café. A jury convicted Riggle on two counts of first degree murder, which carried a mandatory death sentence. On appeal, the Wyoming Supreme Court upheld the conviction, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case. Seeing no other avenue, Riggle’s lawyers sought clemency from Governor Simpson.
In March 1957, just 13 hours prior to the execution time, Gov. Simpson commuted the sentence. In doing so, he made it clear that as long as he was governor, capital punishment in Wyoming was off the table. His action, although granted to him by Article Four, Section Five of the Wyoming Constitution, was motivated by his personal beliefs. As part of the commutation, Simpson added the stipulation that Riggle could not be paroled, and must spend the rest of his life in prison.
This was not the first time a Wyoming governor had commuted a death sentence. In 1923 Gov. William Ross commuted the death sentence of Clifford Mann to life in prison. Mann was later discharged from the penitentiary after serving 27 years. In 1957, James Best was still serving time under a similar stipulation imposed by then Gov. Alonzo Clark., who had commuted Best’s sentence in 1931. Simpson felt confident that future administrations and parole boards would honor the stipulations he had put in the commutation, and that Riggle would remain in the penitentiary. The news of the commutation was captivating. Bold headlines ran in many state newspapers.
In a formal statement, Governor Simpson noted, “I have always been opposed to capital punishment. I doubt that it is a deterrent to crime. Terrible and revolting and indefensible as was Riggle’s crime, taking his life cannot atone for the murders, nor lessen the grief of the victims’ survivors. It merely adds one more life to the toll of the tragedy”.
Simpson knew that since the State Supreme Court upheld the conviction and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case, any chance of reprieve fell on his shoulders. His statement showed his strong personal beliefs: “I feel that the spiritual law transcends the civil and am convinced of the Scriptural admonition ‘Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath; but it is written, vengeance is mine; I will repay saith the Lord. (Romans 12:19)’” The governor added, “Riggle’s punishment is God’s prerogative. Only God can finally adjust the balance between justice and mercy, and I am commuting the sentence of Clay Riggle from death to life imprisonment.” 
Reactions to Simpson’s stand
Statewide and nationally, Simpson’s action drew both positive and negative responses. Mail from around the country generally supported a national campaign against the commutation. Wyoming letters expressed a wide range of emotions. Simpson first attempted to answer many of the in-state letters individually, acknowledging agreement or disagreement, but soon came up with a standard response for each side.
In general, Wyoming news outlets accepted the commutation with little criticism. Several papers suggested a change in state statutes regarding capital punishment, ranging from outright abolishment to appointing a board to make the final decision of clemency, rather than leaving it up to the governor alone.
Another commutation, and the possibility of two more
In December 1957 after an appeal for clemency involving a different case, Simpson commuted the death sentence of Ernest Lindsay, with the same stipulation of no opportunity for parole. Linsday, from Harrisburg, Pa., convicted in January 1956 in Converse County for the murder of Herbert A Diestler, had been scheduled for execution on Jan. 4, 1958. His execution date was set by the State Supreme Court when it turned down his appeal. Simpson explained that his beliefs had not changed regarding capital punishment since he had commuted Riggle’s sentence nine months earlier. A third appeal never made it to Simpson’s desk. The State Supreme Court overturned the case.
Late in January 1958, 19-year-old murderer Charles Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Fugate were captured in Douglas, Wyo., after a killing spree that left 10 people dead in Nebraska and one in Wyoming. Simpson soon let it be known he would commute the sentence if Starkweather were sentenced to death.
“How can I dare try the man here, knowing the governor has come out against capital punishment?” Converse County, Wyo., Attorney William Dixon asked. Apparently happy to have the case off his hands, Simpson quickly announced he would sign Nebraska extradition papers “in a jiffy.” Starkweather was returned to Nebraska the next day.
In the 1992 New Yorker interview and others, Al Simpson has commented that his father’s stand on capital punishment cost him his bid for re-election. A closer examination of the numbers, however, shows that may not be the case. Letters to Milward Simpson from around the state regarding his commutation of Riggle’s sentence show most correspondents agreeing with the governor’s actions. Future administrations and parole boards also agreed with his stipulation. Riggle remained behind bars until his death in 1981. By contrast, correspondence relating to the veteran’s exemption shows most letter writers opposed the governor’s doing away with the exemption.
Other factors in Simpson’s failed re-election bid
It is hard to discern the number of votes, if any, the capital punishment issue cost Simpson, as it is impossible to identify the individual pro-capital punishment voter. It is also impossible to identify the discouraged veteran voter, and his or her marital status, as one veteran household could easily mean a loss of two votes. The I-90 delegates from Sheridan appear to have followed through with their threat, however; Simpson won 1,708 fewer votes in Sheridan County in 1958 than he did in 1954.
And he took the gamble and lost in Teton County. Although Simpson won Teton County in both 1954 and 1958, re-election results show that he won 207 fewer votes there the second time around. Also, a third-party candidate, Louis Carlson, who ran on the “Economy” ticket and supported gambling drew 618 votes in Teton County, and 4,979 votes statewide.
Another likely factor in Simpson’s failed bid for re-election was growing support for Democrats nationwide that year. In 1954, Simpson beat Scotty Jack by just over 1,100 votes. In 1958, he lost to Joe Hickey by more than double that number. Also that year in the U.S. Senate race, Wyoming Democrat Gale McGee defeated incumbent Republican Frank Barrett, who had served only one term after defeating three-term Democrat O’Mahoney. Nationwide, Democrats won control of both the House and the Senate, and elected 24 Democratic governors and only eight Republicans.
The loss of the governorship did not mean the end of politics for Milward Simpson, however. In 1960, Wyoming voters elected Republican Keith Thompson to the U.S. Senate, but he died unexpectedly before he could take office. Gov. Joe Hickey, a Democrat, resigned in January 1961, at which point Acting Gov. Jack Gage appointed Hickey to the senate seat vacated by Thompson’s death. The law stipulated that Hickey face the voters at the general election in 1962. Simpson ran against him and won easily, with 58 percent of the vote. He served the remaining four years of the term that Thompson would have served had he lived. Simpson did not run again.
- “Election Summary.” Wyoming State Tribune, Nov. 5, 1958, 1.
- “Gambling Closed in County.” Jackson Hole Guide, Aug. 2, 1956, 1. Wyoming State Archives and Historical Department, Cheyenne, Wyo. (Hereafter WSA)
- “Governor Draws Little Criticism for Commuting Riggle’s Sentence.” Wyoming Eagle, March 29, 1957, 1.
- “Governor’s Reprieve Saves Riggle From Gas Chamber.” The Wheatland Times, March 28, 1957, 1.
- Newhouse, J. “Taking it Personally.” New Yorker 68, no. 4, 56-78.
- “Riggle’s Life is Spared by Simpson.” Casper Morning Star, March 26, 1957, 1.
- Simpson, Milward S. Papers. Collection No. 26. Chronological Summary, Box 189, Folder 19; Correspondences, Box 219, Folder 12; Hearing Before the Governor, Olin O. Emery, Box 164, Folder 7; Letter to Governor Simpson, Box 164, Folder 7, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyo.
- Trenholm, Virginia Cole, ed. Wyoming Blue Book. Vol. III, 453, 751, WSA.
- Weingroff, Richard. “Essential to the National Interest.” Public Roads 69, no. 5 (March/Apr 2006), accessed July 13, 2020 at https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/publicroads/06mar/07.cfm.
- Wyoming Liquor Commission. Minutes. Nov. 29, 1956. WSA
- Wyoming Secretary of State. Official Vote, General Election Nov. 4, 1958. WSA.
- Wyoming State Highway Department. Commission Minutes, 1956. Administrative Records, Series 1, Box 2, WSA.
- The photo of Gov. Milward and Lorna Simpson and the mugshot of Tricky Riggle are from Wyoming State Archives. Used with permission and thanks.
- The photo of the gamblers is from the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming. Used with permission and thanks.
- The photo of the ribbon cutting at the new bridge over Powder River, Oct. 14, 1962, is from the Campbell County Rockpile Museum in Gillette. Used with permission and thanks. Shown, left to right, are Wyoming Highway Commission Chairman Harold Del Monte, with scissors a brochure in his coat pocket titled "Better Highways," Buffalo Mayor O. W. Lusher and Gillette Mayor Denzil J. Dalbey. E. W. Record stands on the stage beside the radio broadcast microphone. Everyone else is unidentified.
 Trenholm, Wyoming Blue Book, 453.
 Simpson Papers, Correspondences.
 Trenholm, 751.
 Weingroff, “National Interest.”
 Simpson Papers, Chronological Summary.
 Commission Minutes, State Highway Department.
 Newhouse, “Taking it Personally,” 56-78.
 “Gambling Closed,” 1.
 Simpson Papers, Letter to Governor Simpson.
 Simpson Papers, Hearing Before the Governor.
 Wyoming Liquor Commission Minutes.
 “Riggle’s Life Spared,” 1.
 “Governor’s Reprieve,” 1.
 “Governor’s Reprieve,” 1.
 “Governor Draws Little Criticism,” 1.
 Newhouse, “Taking it Personally,” 56-78.
 Wyoming Secretary of State, Official Vote, General Election Nov. 4, 1958.
 “Election Summary,” 1.