Tag Archives: 1890

1890: Elizabeth and Josiah Potts, wife and husband

On this date in 1890, an affectionate married couple hanged together in Elko, Nevada, for a murder they insisted they had not authored.

We obtain this headline and the associated (nationally circulated) story from the San Diego Union of June 26, 1890.

[Associated Press Dispatches.]

ELKO, Nev., June 20. — Elko is in a ferment of excitement, many parties pouring in to witness the execution of the Potts family for the murder of Miles Fawcett in January, 1888. Over sixteen women have already applied for permits to witness the execution, which were refused.

The conduct of Mrs. Potts during the past five days has been an alternation of hysterical crying, screaming and swearing at her husband, who mopes the time away in solitude. Yesterday morning at 5 o’clock she attempted to commit suicide, gashing her wrists and trying to smother herself. The vigilance of the death watch prevented further injury but she fainted from loss of blood. Both the Potts retired early last night in a nervous condition.

At 10:30 o’clock the Sheriff read the death-warrants to Josiah and Elizabeth Potts. The reading of the warrant took place in the doorway of the latticed cell, which Josiah has occupied for so long a period.

He stood in a despondent attitude, with his head bowed down against the iron bars, and not once during the reading of the warrant did he lift his head. His wife stood erect, clad in a neat muslin suit draped in black, with a red rose in her bodice. She was pale, but with a most determined aspect in every feature. During the reading of her own warrant only once did she show any emotion whatever, and she convulsively clutched her throat when her husband’s was being read, and when the words “hanged by the neck till you are dead” were reached, she gave a hysterical gasp and seemed to exhibit much feeling.

The reading of the warrants was finished at 10:30, and both the condemned people emerged from the jail, where they had been confined for eighteen months, and proceeded outside the door to the yard between the Courthouse and jail, in which the scaffold had been erected. The sunshine relieved in a measure the gruesome surroundings. During the readings of the warrants, and evidently owing to the intense nervous strain on every one, a Deputy Sheriff was so overcome that he had to call for a glass of water.

At the conclusion of the reading Mrs. Potts earnestly ejaculated:

I AM INNOCENT AND GOD KNOWS IT,

and Josiah Potts reiterated, “God knows we are innocent.” The gloomy procession led the way through a side door and with a bravery unexpected by the sixty-odd spectators, the condemned couple seated themselves on stools provided on the scaffold, while the deputies speedily proceeded to bind them with leather straps, Mrs. Potts helping to adjust them herself while Potts sat through it all in stolidity.

When everything had been properly adjusted, they were directed to rise and all of the attendants shook hands with the condemned unfortunates. The attendants held the strap attached to Mrs. Potts’ manacled wrists and Potts made several most earnest endeavors to clasp the hands of his wife but without accomplishing it. Finally a touch on her wrist caused her to turn her eyes toward his and a mute appeal of love caused their lips to meet. As the rope was stretched around Mrs. Potts’ neck she clasped her hands together, and lifting her eyes towards the sky, exclaimed “God help me; I am innocent.”

Her husband reiterated in a hollow tone, “God knows we are innocent,” as the black caps were drawn over their heads.

The words of the clergyman who had remained with them to the last broke the silence by saying: “Put your trust in God and He will see you righted,” and then the drop fell. Instantaneously,

MRS. POTTS WAS A CORPSE,

owing to her heavy weight. Her flacid [sic] flesh caused a rupture of the carotid artery and a stream of blood burst forth from under the chin of the dead woman, staining her white raiment. To the great surprise of all who had seen Potts’ emaciated condition his vitality was great, it being a fraction over fourteen minutes, as counted by the Associated Press reporter, before life was pronounced extinct by Drs. Meiggs and Petty.

At 11:08 the body of Mrs. Potts was cut down when it was seen that her excessive weight on the five foot and a half drop had almost dissevered her head from the trunk, the muscles in the back of her neck alone supporting the connection.

About nine minutes later Josiah Potts’ body was cut down and the body of himself and wife, in the absence of any claiming friends, were deposited in the potter’s field of the Elko grave yard half an hour later.

After the interment of the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Potts, District Attorney Love, accompanied by an Associated Press reporter, placed in the potter’s field all the remains of the murdered Fawcett known to exist above the earth. The box of bones had been in the District Attorney’s office at the Courthouse from the time when he first started to search for the criminals.

THE CRIME

for which the couple was executed was the murder of Miles Fawcett, 70 years of age, at Carlin, January 1st, 1888, because he insisted on being paid some money due from Potts. He visited Potts and this was the last seen of him until his dead body was discovered some months after by a person who rented the house formerly occupied by Potts.


That’s the end of the Union article.

Despite the incriminating circumstances of Mr. Fawcett’s disappearance, many people found the Potts’s insistence upon their innocence persuasive … especially after a last message from Elizabeth Potts reached public ears.


Laramie (Wyoming) Daily Boomerang, June 24, 1624.

Innocent or guilty, Elizabeth Potts remains the first, last, and only woman ever legally executed in Nevada. As of this writing (mid-2018) the Silver State has not had any woman on death row since Priscilla Joyce Ford died in 2005.

1890: Three hangings in Louisiana

From the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Jan. 18, 1890:

CLINTON, La., Jan. 17. — [Special.] — At 1:15 this afternoon the witnesses summoned by the sheriff proceeded to the jailyard where the scaffold had been erected. A few minutes later Charles and Isaiah Dent were led from their cells and up the steps to the platform, which overlooked a space where quite a large crowd had gathered outside the inclosure around the jail.

Both men walked firmly, Isaiah showing throughout wonderful nerve, and Charles, though a little shaky, apparently ready to meet his fate without quailing.

When they first reached the platform they seemed to be praying half audibly. While Sheriff Woodward read the death warrant both men looked about them, seemingly not more concerned than if they were only disinterested spectators of the scene. Charles Dent nodded his head assentingly each time the officer paused in his reading.

At the end of a sentence Sheriff Woodward asked them if they wished to say anything. Isaiah said, “I want to speak to them people,” indicating the crowd on the outside. “Friends and foes,” he said in a clear voice, “let this be a warning to all; don’t do like Isaiah.” After a pause he continued, “My home will be in heaven.”

When he had ceased Charles said, “Charles Dent, the same. If I hadn’t went down the road this wouldn’t have happened, but I didn’t do no shooting.”

The black caps were drawn over the heads of the doomed men. The rope that supported the trap was cut and the two fell together a distance of about 8 feet. Their necks were both broken and their agony was soon over, the pulse of Isaiah ceasing to beat within 3 minutes and all signs of life being extinct in Charles in 12 minutes.

Everything connected with the execution was skillfully arranged and quickly and smoothly carried out by the sheriff and his efficient deputies.

THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE CRIME

for which Isaiah and Charles Dent were executed were as follows:

Herman Praetorius, a German merchant and farmer living at Ethel, on the Louisville, New Orleans and Texas Railroad, had been furnishing supplies to the Dent brothers. Along in the summer some cause of disagreement arose and ill-feeling between the merchant and his customers became intense and the relationship between them, as such, came to an end.

Late in the afternoon on Monday, July 1, of last year, while Praetorius was returning from a visit to a plantation several miles from home, he had occasion to pass near where the Dent brothers live. Evidence on the trial showed that as he came into the public road by a bypath Charles and Isaiah Dent, two brothers, and a brother-in-law of theirs were standing a short distance up the road, in an opposite direction from that in which he was going, and that they called to him and he turned and rode back to where they were standing. Some loud words were heard and Praetorius was seen to turn to ride away from the party of negroes, who were armed and making angry demonstrations. Just as he was riding away Charles and Isaiah Dent were seen to raise their shotguns, the reports of which were heard, and Praetorius fell from his horse, shot to death. His murderers fled, Charles and Isaiah escaping to Pointe Coupee parish, the other three participants, David and Clark Dent and Frank Cooper, being subsequently arrested and placed in jail in Clinton.

After some time Charles and Isaiah Dent were

APPREHENDED IN POINTE COUPEE

and likewise lodged in jail in Clinton. Public indignation was at a fever heat and an ineffectual effort was made to hang the two principal murderers by the processes of Judge Lynch’s court. For greater security the two prisoners were taken to New Orleans and confined in the parish prison until the next term of court, which met in September.

The grand jury promptly indicted the five men for murder.

The attorneys for the Dents, Messrs. E.T. Merrick, Jr., of New Orleans, and Judge J.G. Kilbourne of Clinton, filed a motion for a change of venue, which was overruled by the court.

THE TRIAL

excited a great deal of interest and occupied several days. The result was a verdict of guilty, without qualification, as to Charles and Isaiah Dent, which consigned them to the gallows.

Frank Cooper went to the penitentiary for life and Clark and David Dent for lesser terms.

The condemned men have since their arrest steadfastly maintained that the killing of Praetorius was done in self-defense, though the testimony of eye-witnesses to the contrary was irrefutable. Isaiah has taken his fate philosophically, and seemed resigned from the time he learned the decision of the district court had been affirmed by the supreme court, to which an appeal had been taken, but his brother Charles has taken the matter much harder.

James Holcombe’s Crime.

BONNET CARRE P.O., St. John the Baptist Parish, La., Jan. 17. — [Special.] — At dusk of day, Nov. 12, 1888, as James Holcombe and Emile Ambroise were returning from Waguespack’s plantation, where they were employed, they met Madeleine Will, a pretty colored girl, on the railroad track back of Angelina plantation in this parish. Holcombe on seeing her whispered a few words to Ambroise and advancing toward Madeleine began a conversation with her. A few minutes after Ambroise, who was a short distance away, heard a shot fired, and thinking it was intended for him ran off. In his flight he was met by young Brignac, to whom he related the story, and as Brignac came to the spot he found Madeleine Will gasping her life away, whilst Holcombe was reclining over her body.

Brignac ran to the neighbors and related what he had seen, but when they came to the spot Madeleine Will was dead and James Holcombe had disappeared.

The next day the coroner held an inquest over the body and the jury found that

MADELEINE WILL CAME TO HER DEATH

from a gunshot wound inflicted by James Holcombe and Emile Ambroise.

On the 14th of November, 1888, the accused were arrested and committed to jail without the benefit of bail.

Seven months after, on the 5th of June 1889, the grand jury then in session found a true bill of murder against both Holcombe and Ambroise. On motion of District Attorney Leche their case was then fixed for June 14, 1889.

In the meanwhile the dastardly deed had created so much excitement that two of our most prominent citizens took steps towards raising a fund to aid in the prosecution of the case.

On the day fixed for the trial the case was continued to the 15th of June, 1889, when it was regularly taken up and proceeded with.

THE STATE

was represented by Judge Gervais Leche of St. John and Chas. A. Baquie of St. Charles. Ambroise was represented by H.N. Gantier of Jefferson, and James Holcombe having no means to employ counsel, the court appointed P.E. Edrington to take charge of his case.

After a little trouble the following jury, composed of four white and eight colored men, were impaneled: Paul Webre, Jefferson Coleman, Valery Barre, Felicien Landeche, Firmin Clement, Theo. Haydel, Felix Martin, Joseph Sandez, Francois Mathieu, Alfred Vicksnair, Gustave Delonde and Bernard Orbien.

After the state had heard from four of its witnesses it was evident that it would fail in its case, as the evidence was circumstantial and not of a nature to convict, so District Attorney Leche abandoned the state’s case against Emile Ambroise and placed him on the witness stand.

THE GUILT OF JAMES HOLCOMBE

was then clearly proven.

The case was submitted without argument, and after hearing the judge’s charge the jury retired to their room, when in fifteen minutes they returned a verdict of guilty against James Holcombe as charged and not guilty as to Emile Ambroise.

On the 20th of June, 1889, counsel for Holcombe made a motion for a new trial, which was heard on the day following and the motion denied by the court. On the same day a suspensive appeal to the supreme court was granted, and that ribunal on the 13th of December, 1889, affirmed the judgment of the lower court.

On Jan. 6, 1890, the governor fixed the day of execution to be on Friday, Jan. 17, 1890.

James Holcombe was a thick set negro of the true African type, 5 feet 4 inches tall, weight 155 pounds, and 21 years old. He had taken everything philosophically so far, and it was only to-day that he evinced some uneasiness. Charitably disposed persons frequently sent him delicacies, such as champagne, fruits and cakes, all of which he seemed to relish, but his favorite dish was ham and rice, cooked together.

THE EXECUTION

took place yesterday at the courthouse. James Holcombe spent his last night on earth in an apparently comfortable manner, although he would accept of no nourishment, on this, the last day of his existence.

To questions propounded by your correspondent, his answers were that he was reconciled to his God, and willing to meet his fate.

When dressed for the scaffold the greatest coolness was shown, helping his minister to dress him. His march on the scaffold was firm and in his farewell address to the fifteen witnesses present he reiterated his innocence, saying that the God who was to receive his soul this day would in the close hereafter receive the soul of the party who committed the crime.

At 12:17 p.m. the black cap was adjusted and after prayers offered by the Rev. Baily Lee the trap was sprung, his neck was broken and death was instantaneous.

The rope was cut down at 12:49 p.m. and his body delivered into the hands of the parents of the condemned at his own request.

Credit is due to our efficient sheriff and his able deputies for the manner in which the execution was performed.