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1878: Sevier Lewis, a family affair

August 30th, 2014 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On August 30, 1878, Sevier (aka Severe, Savier) Lewis was hanged in Empire City, Oregon — today known as Coos Bay — for the murder of his much younger half-brother, Zachariah T. “Zack” Lewis on May 22, 1876.

The brothers were two of Hiram Hamilton Lewis’s nine children. Hiram was 74 years old at the time of Zack’s murder, and ambitious in spite of his age: he was running for state legislature.

Sevier, who was in his early fifties, was married and had seven children. Zack was twenty-five, single and still living at home. It was said he’d taken an interest in Sevier’s sixteen-year-old daughter Sylvia. Her father warned him to stay away, but Zack wouldn’t listen and kept coming around pestering his niece with unwanted advances. Finally Sevier had had enough.

Well, that’s one version of the story. Here’s another one:

Sylvia confided to her young uncle that she’d been raped by her father, and become pregnant. Zack went to Sevier and told him to stop the molestation immediately or he would tell the entire family what he had done. He helped Sylvia move in with her grandparents to protect her, and told Sevier that if he touched her again, he would kill him. Sevier touched her again.

These starkly contrasting purported motives may assign which characters, in the ensuing violent tableau, don the white hats and which the black. But either way, one late spring day, Sevier loaded his gun and went to his father’s home where he found little brother working in the fields. Sevier shot him dead, and then took flight.

In December 1877, a full year and a half after the shock murder and probably about the time Sevier was getting comfortable with having gotten away with it, a Coos County man chanced to recognize the fugitive in a hotel bar in Seattle and had him arrested.

Sevier’s own father and Sevier’s own son both testified against him at the subsequent trial, traveling 200 miles to to so. His defense attorney didn’t try to pretend he was innocent and only pleaded for a recommendation of mercy. He was convicted of his brother’s murder in June 1878 and sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead. The judge also ordered him to cough up $830.10 in court costs, including $21 worth of beer he’d been prescribed during his incarceration.

Oregonian, August 31, 1878.

Lewis’s scaffold speech was bitter and disjointed — “bravado and blasphemy on the gallows,” the Portland Oregonian headlined it. He rambled on about how everyone was prejudiced against him, expressed love for his family and added, “If I could die a thousand times and save my daughter I would do it. If I could save her I would be satisfied to die.”

Author Diane L. Goeres-Gardner describes his final moments in her book Necktie Parties: Legal Executions in Oregon, 1851-1905:

Defiant, stubborn and vindictive, he finally forced Sheriff Aiken to manhandle him closer to the hanging rope. Even as the black cap was pulled over his head and he was being pushed forward he yelled, “What in the hell are you doing that for? I am not afraid to die.”

It was a clean hanging. His neck snapped and Sevier Lewis died within minutes.

What happened to Hiram Lewis’s political aspirations? Well, given the scandal, it’s no surprise that he lost the election. He moved to Lane County after Zack’s murder and died in 1879, supposedly of a broken heart.

What can history tell us about which brother to believe? Was Sevier really trying to protect his daughter, or did Zack pay the ultimate price for his attempt to rescue Sylvia from her predatory father?

Andie E. Jensen, author of Hangman’s Call: The Executions and Lynchings of Coos County, Oregon 1854-1925, studied the available records and notes that Sevier’s youngest child Lucy’s year of birth is unknown — the dates range from 1875 to 1877 — while all his other children had their exact date and place of birth recorded. He speculates that Lucy, said to be the daughter of Sevier and his wife Elizabeth, was in fact Sylvia’s child.

“Fact or fiction,” he concludes, “we will never know for sure. The end result was the execution of Sevier Lewis, whose act of murder victimized more than just his half brother Zack.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Oregon,Other Voices,Public Executions,USA

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2 thoughts on “1878: Sevier Lewis, a family affair”

  1. Lynnea Dickinson says:

    Sevier Lewis’ first cousin, Jacob Harmon, was also convicted of murder. On July 6, 1857, Jacob shot & killed Andrew Jackson Yancey in Spring Creek Twp., Black Hawk Co., Iowa. An old grudge had existed between the 2 men for about 1 year. Jacob had been put under bond to keep the peace for 1 year. He shot Yancey a few days after the bond expired. Jacob was convicted with 2nd degree murder. This was the first murder conviction of Black Hawk Co., Iowa. He received a sentence of 11 years hard labor in the state penitentiary in Fort Madison. (According to some of the Black Hawk Co. older Harmon family members, Jacob caught his wife and Mr. Yancey in a compromising situation.) In a newspaper article, Jacob is described as “a man about 40 years of age, strongly built, looking as though he had strong passions, has a family, appears rather cool, almost indifferent … thinks he is in a tight place, but says he intends to get clear by the aid of Lawyers getting his trial put off from one __ to another, or in setting up the pleas of insanity.” Jacob did plead insanity, stating his mother was subject to fits of insanity. Andrew Jackson Yancey was born 15 July 1836 and Harmon family members state he is buried in Sawyer Cemetery, Black Hawk Co., where many Harmons are buried.

  2. I’m a great grandson of Sevier Lewis, the man executed according to this report. The incident was a closely guarded secret within our family as none of us in the younger generation knew anything about it until about 20 years ago when a curious cousin happened onto an article in the local newspaper of the time.

    At this point, we are vigorously searching for any information whatever about the little girl, Lucy Lewis, mentioned in the report. We’d like to know what happened to her. She was listed in the household of Sevier’s wife, Elisabeth, in the 1880 census for Smithfield in Lane Co., OR, but we haven’t found anything else. Any suggestions as to where to search next would be very much appreciated.

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