Tag Archives: 1854

1854: Willis Washam, “I never done it, though, boys”

Today’s hanging comes courtesy of a public domain History of Greene County, Missouri, whose account we reproduce in full below:


HANGING OF WILLIS WASHAM — THE FIRST LEGAL EXECUTION IN GREENE COUNTY.

August 25, 1854, the first legal hanging came off in Greene county. The subject was one Willis Washam, of Taney county. The crime which it was alleged Washam committed, and for which he was hung, was thus described at the trial: —

Washam lived on a little farm down on White river, near Forsyth, in Taney county. He was a poor man, somewhat well advanced in years, and lived a retired, obscure life. He had married a woman, who had a son, some fourteen years of age at the time of his death. The Washam family was not a model one. The old man and his wife had frequent quarrels, and both of them treated the son with great cruelty, frequently beating him with uncommon severity. It is said that the boy often showed fight, and was known to strike his mother with a single-tree and with a hoe.

One morning Washam and the boy went down on Bee creek to fish. According to the old man, when they reached the fishing place they separated. The boy never returned home alive. Some days afterward his body was found in Bee creek, with a heavy stone tied about the neck and marks of violence on the body. Mrs. Washam at once accused her husband of having killed her son, and, giving an alarm, he was at once arrested and imprisoned at Forsyth.

Becoming alarmed, Washam struck out for Arkansas, taking with him his own little boy, aged probably eight years, and riding a famous horse which he called “Tom Benton.” He worked on a cotton plantation down on the Arkansas river for some months, or until, as he said, he had a buckskin purse a foot in length full of silver dollars. His little boy never murmured for a long time, but at last one morning, while the two were lying in bed, he threw his arms about his father and said, “Daddy, when are you going to take me home to see my mammy?” Washam immediately arose, and in two hours was on his way back to Taney county, and behind him on old “Tom Benton,” was his little boy, who was overjoyed at the prospect of soon seeing his “mammy.” Arriving at home, Washam was cordially received by his wife, who told him that he was now considered innocent of the crime of which he was accused: that no proceedings had been commenced against him, and that indeed the matter had almost died out in the minds of the community. Washam lay down to sleep in fancied security, but before morning he missed his wife, and searching for her found that she had left the premises. Suspicioning that she had gone to Forsyth to betray him (which was true) Washam again mounted “Tom Benton” and started to escape. He had not gone far before he was overtaken by the sheriff of Taney county, and arrested and taken to Forsyth. On his way to Forsyth the sheriff said Washam offered him “Tom Benton” if he would let him escape; but Washam said that the sheriff himself offered “to look the other way” if Washam would give him his horse. Washam had been indicted and on being arraigned at Forsyth took a change of venue to this county. There were many threats made to lynch him by the people of Taney county. At the July term, 1854, of the circuit court of this county Washam was brought to trial. Judge Chas. S. Yancey presided. E. B. Boone was circuit attorney, A. G. McCracken clerk and Junius T. Campbell sheriff (by appointment). Hon. Littleberry Hendrick was the counsel for the prisoner. The jury before whom Washam was tried was composed of Ezekiel C. Cook, foreman; Wm. Gray, Qualls Banfield, Wm. White, James S. McQuirter, Sam’l McClelland, Mark Bray, John Freeman, Thos. Green, Joseph Moss, John R. Earnest, and Jabez R. Townsend. The trial lasted two days. The testimony was mainly of a circumstantial character, and that most damaging to the prisoner was the evidence of his wife. On the 21st of July the jury reurned a verdict of “guilty of murder in the first degree.” The next day Judge Yancey sentenced Washam to be hung at Springfield on the 25th of August following, — speedy punishment and short shrift certainly.

Mr. Hendrick made a hard fight for his client, but it was without avail. He made a strong speech to the jury, and urged the members to be careful not to hang a fellow-man on circumstantial evidence. After Washam was sentenced Mr. Hendrick moved for a new trial and for arrest of judgment; both motions were overruled. He then moved for a suspension of the sentence until the case could be heard in the Supreme Court; this motion was also overruled. He then prepared to appeal the case to the Supreme Court, but as there was to be an adjourned term of the circuit court held in August, he decided to attempt to set aside the sentence of the court then. At this adjourned term, two days before the hanging of his client, he moved to vacate, set aside, and annul the judgment of the court and set aside the verdict of the jury, but Judge Yancey refused to take any action in the matter.

It is doubtful if Mr. Hendrick could have secured a new trial for his client in the Supreme Court, since all the proceedings had been regular, and there remained but the matter of guilt and innocence, questions of fact, which the jury had passed upon; yet it is strange that he did not take the case to the Supreme Court, at any rate, even if but for the purpose of delay, and it is said that he afterward expressed regret that he did not do so, as he was fully convinced of VVasham’s innocence.

On the 25th of August, the day set for the execution, without commutation, postponement, or mitigation of the sentence, Willis Washam was hung. The execution took place in the northeastern part of Springfield, on the north side of “Jordan,” [Creek] and west of the present site of the cotton factory. The gallows stood not far from the tree on which the negro ravisher was hung. An immense crowd from all parts of Southwest Missouri was present, coming from Buffalo, from Bolivar, from Warsaw, and other points miles away. Washam made a short speech on the gallows, saying he was innocent of the crime for which he was to be made to suffer, “and,” said he, “if I had plenty of money to hire big lawyers with and pay expenses, I could get clear. My old woman has sworn my life away, but I am ready to die. I never done it, though, boys; I never done it.”

Sheriff Samuel Fulbright had been elected sheriff a few days previously, and he was the executioner. It is said that he always regretted the part he had to perform on this occasion, even to his dying day, and there are those silly enough to allege, without any good reason, that this was the moving cause that impelled him to take his own life, which he did, by poison, only a few years since. Washam died game, and after being pronounced dead his body was cut down and given to Dr. —-, of Springfield, who used it for scientific purposes. A few years since a story was put in circulation and obtained some credence, that Mrs. Washam, wife of him who was hung and mother of the murdered boy, had died at her home in Taney or Wright county, and on her deathbed, it is said, she made confession that her husband was innocent of the crime for which he died at Springfield, and that she, herself, had perpetrated the dreadful deed and murdered her own son with her own hands, tying the stone to his neck and sinking the body in Bee creek, and, then by all manner of devices, had contrived to fasten the burden of guilt upon her husband, and caused him to suffer what should have been her punishment. After careful investigation the writer has been unable to obtain a corroboration of this story, and does not hesitate to declare it a fabrication. At any rate, from the evidence and all of the facts adduced, there seems no reasonable doubt but that Washam was guilty of a deliberate and atrocious murder and suffered a just punishment. It is said that the story of Mrs. Washam’s confession was first told by an ingenious but unscrupulous attorney, who was trying to acquit a client of murder in the circuit court of this county.


Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, another family homicide was avenged on the scaffold. This account from the Washington (Penn.) Review and Examiner of September 9 that same year will read very banal to anyone without an abiding interest in the particulars of the Anglo hanging ritual, until we come to the final paragraph’s gruesome revelation that “the left eye was found to be forced out of its socket and very black all around; the knot of the rope was on this side.”

1854: John Hendrickson, junk science victim

On this date in 1854, an Albany, N.Y. man named John Hendrickson hanged for the murder by aconite poisoning of his wife, Maria. “He has suffered the highest penalty of the law,” New York’s Weekly Herald pronounced the next day — “but whether justly or not, will likely never be known on earth.”

Whatever the prisoner’s denials,* a web of suspicious circumstances clasped the hemp around his throat. Hendrickson, whose family had some money and connections, fought the conviction tooth and nail; his then-unusual three appeals, plus clemency petition to the governor, stretched the time from conviction to execution out to nearly a year. “The evidence adduced … was so entirely circumstantial, and the testimony of the scientific men so liable to doubt and contradiction, that it was generally feared the murderer would escape,” a Boston Post correspondent reported.** But not to worry: “the atmosphere of guilt seemed to surround him in the whole county; not a man could be found that, at heart, believed him innocent.” We’re scarcely prepared at this distance to assert an affirmative case for the man’s innocence, but in some ways it reads like an antebellum Cameron Willingham case, all the way down to the dubious forensic evidence.

Like Willingham, Hendrickson was a less than stellar husband. He was noted for abusing his wife, philandering, and doing both together when he “communicated to her a loathsome veneral disease.”

The supposed murder motivation was his wife’s recent inheritance of the estate of her father, who died just a few months before the murder. Little could really be proven save by inference from the man’s bad character; in classic tunnel-vision fashion, the record suggests nearly every data point became fixed according to this theory. For example, Hendrickson’s trial prosecutors read into evidence — in the part of their presentation they called the “Moral Evidence” — that Hendrickson remarked at his wife’s autopsy that “they won’t find arsenic.” You and I might think he’s saying that the examination will dispel the gathering suspicions of poisoning, and saying it by reference to the chemical that was the metonym for poisoning in the nineteenth century. For the state, his uttering these words was

as if he knew (as he undoubtedly did) the precise poison which she had swallowed — as if he knew that that common poison, which is found in most cases of the kind, had not been given by the murderer in this case, and hence they won’t find arsenic. Ah! gentlemen, it was nature speaking out, as she often unconsciously or unguardedly will, disclosing the otherwise well concealed and apparently undiscoverable crime.

(This is why you don’t talk to police.)

The district attorney introduced evidence courtesy of chemists named Salisbury and Swinburne, to the effect that it was no mean arsenic that carried away Maria Hendrickson but the more exotic potion of aconite — derived from a toxic herb seeded (per Ovid) by Cerberus himself.

One can peruse the evidence presented in the case here, but the most remarkable part of this trial record is the appendix — wherein numerous medical men, including a former teacher of Dr. Salisbury, skewer the forensic processes used to decide that Maria Hendrickson died by poison and even offer to reproduce them in person under the eyes of Gov. Horatio Seymour to prove their unreliability. Their findings harshly undercut the only concrete evidence that any murder took place at all.

“I am pained and oppressed with the conviction that the medical witnesses for the prosecution have, in a main point of this case, abused the confidence with which criminal courts so often compliment the man of science,” one writes — words that could still today be applied to many disciplines of junk science that have disappeared bodies into oubliettes on the strength of lie detectors, bite mark analysis, matching hair samples, and suchlike hocus-pocus.

We turn from the contemplation of this subject with feelings of sorrow, not that any of ours have been crushed under the wheels of mutilated justice, set in motion by ignorance and false science, but we feel now, as we have always felt, that a great personal wrong has been committed under the authority of law, for which there can be no atonement, as the dead cannot be brought to life, nor the blasted feelings of the living restored.

It would be well, too, for judges and jurors, who are very often hasty and inconsiderate in letting their feelings and prejudices get the better of their judgment, to remember that life, human life, is neither a toy nor a rattle, but the gift of God; when once extinguished, no matter how, it is gone forever, and the dead never rise again.

-Dr. Charles A. Lee, reviewing the Hendrickson case

* Hendrickson’s final message to his parents via his spiritual advisor, on the eve of his hanging:

To-morrow I am to die, and standing as I do on the brink of eternity, I wish to say to you, in the presence of that God before whom I am so soon to appear, that I am entirely innocent of the crime of murdering my wife. I did not give her poison. I do not know that any one gave her poison. She did not come to her death by violence of any kind, so far as I know. I believe she died a natural death. She did not vomit on the night of her death. [This remark touches the disputed forensic evidence; vomiting would be a symptom of poisoning, and state chemists’ assertion that Maria had done so was among the conclusions challenged by outside scientists. -ed.] I never knew that there was such an article as aconite in the world, until after I was in jail. Nor did I know it by any other name. I do not know that I have anything further to add, except to say some farewell words to my parents. But you will remember what I have said to you, and inform them of it. I wish you to make it public.

** Transcribed here via the Portland (Me.) Advertiser of Apr. 18, 1854.