January 8th, 2016 Meaghan
(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On this date in North Carolina, a middle-aged man named Asbury Respus was executed for the murder of nine-year-old Vera DeWitt Leonard.
And that wasn’t all: though virtually forgotten today, Respus was a serial killer with eight confessed murders to his name.
He claimed that he fell from a barn rafter as a youth and was never quite the same after that, being prone to “spells” of homicidal rage. This story may well have been true; he had a noticeable indentation in his skull.
According to Respus’s confession, he killed his first and second victims in Northampton County in the early 1900s. Their names were Lizzie Banks, whom he shot, and Zenie Britt, whom he beat to death with a stick. The third victim was Becky Storr, killed in Boydton, Virginia around 1910; she too had been bludgeoned with a stick.
These early murders are attested only by Respus’s own confession; the first verifiable homicide by his hand took place in 1912. Sentenced to 15 years for manslaughter in the shooting death of a Northampton County man named Ed D. Wynne, Respus escaped from a road gang in 1916 and began life as a drifter.
They can’t have hunted this fugitive very hard. He never went far, always staying in the vicinity of Greensboro, North Carolina.
All four victims prior to his incarceration had been African Americans, as was Respus himself. On January 14, 1918, Respus crossed the color line to axe to death a 56-year-old white woman named Jennie Brown in her home, which he then burned to the ground. So thoroughly did his arson consume the premises that no evidence of a crime remained … leaving Respus free to continue his murder spree. From here on out, by whatever happenstance, all victims were white.
On July 22, 1920, he came across a little boy named Robert Neal Osborne and drowned him in a stream, just for kicks. Again he got lucky: little Robert’s death was recorded as accidental. On July 17, 1925, he murdered 80-year-old widow Eunice Stephenson by striking her on the head and hanging her body from a ceiling beam. This homicide was recognized as such but went unsolved for years.
Vera Leonard was Respus’s youngest female victim and his undoing. Respus may have killed her with rape on his mind. As it was, he went with his old standby, a blunt instrument to the head; afterwards, he burned her body “to a char.” He did not blame his “homicidal spells” for Vera’s murder but instead said he’d been out of his mind on drugs.
Respus expressed gratitude that he was going to his death. “I’d rather he dead and in heaven,” he said, “than here on earth being tormented to death.”
It was a busy day for U.S. executioners. Headlines from the Jan. 8, 1932 edition of the New York Sun.
On this day..
- 1878: Gauchito Gil, Argentina folk saint - 2017
- 1900: The private, decent, and humane execution of a human being named George Smiley - 2015
- 1690: Andrei Ilyich Bezobrazov, stolnik - 2014
- 1813: The Yorkshire Luddites, for murdering William Horsfall - 2013
- 1908: John Boyd, by John Radclive - 2012
- Themed Set: 2010 - 2011
- 2010: Jeong Dae-Sung and Lee Ok-Geum, for escaping North Korea - 2011
- 1603: Not Tommaso Campanella - 2010
- 1864: Two Dodds, as two spies, in two states, and twice botched - 2009
- 1697: Thomas Aikenhead - 2008
Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Guest Writers,Murder,North Carolina,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Serial Killers,USA