1843: Jacob West, Ridge-Watie faction assassin

Add comment October 11th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1843, the Cherokee nation in Oklahoma hanged Jacob West for an election-related murder.

The affair was part of the bloody factional conflict among Cherokee following the Trail of Tears expulsion from ancestral homelands in the American southeast. We’ve touched previously on this conflict in our post on Archilla Smith, the first man executed in the new Cherokee lands. Indeed, West’s victim was the man who prosecuted Archilla Smith, a fellow by the name of Isaac Bushyhead.*

Both that previous hanged man Smith and this date’s principal, Jacob West, were affiliated to the RidgeWatie faction — Cherokee who had signed the controversial treaty acceding to removal. It’s a fair supposition that the growing U.S. would have ethnically cleansed the Cherokee in the east no matter what, but in the event, it was this treaty that supplied the legal basis for doing so. For obvious reasons, the faction aligned with it was not universally popular.

That’s especially so given their opposition by the Cherokee principal chief, John Ross — the nation’s great statesman in the mid-19th century who refused to sign off on removal. For several years in the early 1840s, recriminations between the Ridge-Watie and Ross factions boiled frequently over into violence.

No surprise, then, that we find in R. Michael Wilson’s Legal Executions in Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma Including the Indian Territory: A Comprehensive History a deadly attack in the co

On August 8, 1843, following the biennial elections, Jacob West led a party of six men, including sons George and John West, in an attack on three election judges counting ballots in the Saline District. During the melee that followed George West stabbed Isaac Bushyhead, who had been the prosecutor of [Archilla] Smith, killing him, and all the men beat David Vann, treasurer, and Elijah Hicks, associate Judge of the Cherokee Supreme Court, but Vann and Hicks survived and recovered. A large crowd finally surged forward and captured Jacob and John West, but George and the other three men escaped.

West, a born U.S. citizen who had married into and long lived among the Cherokee, in his own turn appealed to the federal government for a writ of habeas corpus to escape his neighbors’ jurisdiction. It was a case potentially implicating many of the thorny questions of citizenship and sovereignty that have haunted federal-tribal relationships for generations.

Future U.S. president Zachary Taylor, then the commander of the frontier military district surrounding the Cherokee lands, forwarded West’s petitions sympathetically to the U.S. Supreme Court. The courts preferred the reply of the Cherokee official who wrote,

Jacob West has resided in the Cherokee nation, as a citizen thereof, between thirty and forty years, enjoying the benefits of the laws of the nation in every respect during the above period, and has raised a tolerable numerous family of Cherokee children since his residence among us; and although his wife is dead, he is still a citizen of our country, by virtue of our laws and customs … If Jacob West were nothing more than a transient citizen among us, the case would be different; but his expatriating himself from his own country, marrying among the Cherokees, raising a family, remaining among us, participating in our funds, enjoying the benefits of treaties, make it appear he is a citizen of the country.

Jacob West was hanged at Tahlequah on October 11. Four days later, his son John West was publicly flogged for the same crime. In between those two days, John Ross enacted packages of new legislation meant to control the destabilizing political violence abroad, authorizing new policing bodies and harsher penalties for hiding fugitives.

* There’s a recent biography about Bushyhead’s brother, minister Jesse Bushyhead.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Oklahoma,Power,Public Executions,USA

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1879: Three botches in three states

3 comments May 16th, 2010 Headsman

America’s weird love-affair with Frankenstein execution technology has been an occasional theme on this blog, but the fact is that the old-school execution methods these ghastly machines replaced were unpleasantly hit-and-miss.

On this date in 1879, three different U.S. states produced botched executions, each blurbed this New York Times article. (pdf)


One is attracted most readily to the firing-squad execution of murderer Wallace Wilkerson in Utah.

Wilkerson appealed the constitutionality of this method of execution, and in 1879’s Wilkerson v. Utah, the U.S. Supreme Court held that “the punishment of shooting as a mode of executing the death penalty for the crime of murder in the first degree is not” cruel and unusual punishment.

This legal precedent has actually been cited* by the present-day Supreme Court in rejecting legal challenges to lethal injection. Which is ironic, because a couple of months after the high court issued Wilkerson v. Utah, Wilkerson suffered a very cruel execution indeed.

The doomed man talked the officials conducting his execution into allowing him to die without being strapped down. With the resultant range of motion, Wilkerson at the last breath before the fusillade hit him drew his shoulders up as he braced for the impact — and pulled the white target pinned to his shirt above his heart.

The volley didn’t kill him — it just knocked him out of his chair to the ground, screaming “Oh, my God! My God! They have missed!”

He bled to death in 27 minutes, prompting the tongue-in-cheek observation by the Ogden Junction that “the French guillotine never fails.”


Meanwhile, on the very same day in Missouri …

ST. LOUIS, Mo., May 16.–A special dispatch from Booneville, Mo., says: “John I. West, who murdered a tramp last October, was to-day hanged at the Old Fair Ground near this city. When the trap was sprung, at 11:41 A.M., the rope broke, and the culprit fell to the ground on his back, but was too weak to rise. His groans and the gurgling sounds of strangulation were terrible to hear. He was picked up and speedily raised to the trap again, and, while being held by four or five men, was dropped a second time. This time he swung, and in 11 minutes was pronounced dead.

After reaching the platform of the gallows, West spoke nearly half an hour to the crowd present, reiterating his confession of the murder of Shinn, reviewing his past life, and appealing to young men and women to take his fate as a warning. There were about 8,000 people present, among whom was the father of West, who had come from Chapin, Ill.

(There’s a great deal more about West’s crime in the Times article, but it’s pretty dull reading for all the column-inches. He was a tramp who committed a semi-random murder, seemingly activating all the crime-freakout circuits so familiar to cable news programmers.)


Hillsboro, North Carolina, held a first-ever triple hanging — of the “Chapel Hill burglars”. As you might guess, these gentlemen burgled, and said burgling occurred in Chapel Hill. It was for housebreaking, not murder, that they were condemned, with the help of a confederate who turned state’s-evidence against them as soon as the lot was arrested.

Each of the culprits proclaimed his innocence to the last moment. [Lewis] Carlton spoke for an hour, and said his salvation was sure. The parting between [Henry] Andrews and his sister on the scaffold was most affecting, and moved the crowd of witnesses to tears. All the doomed men bore themselves firmly, and showed no signs of wavering. The hanging took place at 2:30 P.M., and was very badly conducted. The ropes around the necks of [Henry Alphonso] Davis and Carlton were too long, and their feet rested on the ground. They were raised up and the ropes retied, causing death by strangulation.

(According to this “history of the University of North Carolina” page, one of the burglars’ victims was writer Cornelia Phillips Spencer. Famous as the woman who rang the bell re-opening UNC in 1875, her role in closing the university in the first place in 1870 and her retrograde racial politics have recently been in Tar Heel news. The linked article suggests that her brush with the Chapel Hill burglars might have given Spencer an appreciation for the Ku Klux Klan’s version of order. After all, a white supremacist vigilante is just a liberal who’s been burgled.)

The St. Louis Globe-Democrat of May 17, 1879 adds of our men’s exit (in an addendum to a report primarily about the aforementioned West) that

[t]he execution was romantic in the extreme. Just as the doomed men ascended the platform a murky cloud, which had been drifting around, hung over the crowd and the instrument of death. Alfonso Davis began to speak, and as he opened his mouth the thunder began to peal, and the rain came down in torrents. Not a man, woman or child in the vast crowd moved or seemed to be aware that the rain was falling, so wrapped up in the death scene were they. At times the cloud threw such a dense shadow over the scene that it seemed as though night had enveloped the place. Then the lightning, vivid and intense, lit up the field of blood and cast forward, in bold and statuesque relief, the figures of the doomed and their executor as he stood like an artilleryman, lanyard in hand, ready to send the signal of death forward … the souls of three burglars went out and beyond, forked lightning illuminating their way and the wildest of thunder pealing their requiem.


The Bayou State redeemed this black day for the executioner’s craft by the uneventful hanging one Robert Cheney (black, of course) “for ravishing Amelia Voight in June, 1878.”

All told, four states killed six men on May 16, 1879, but only two of them died “cleanly.”

* The author of the New York Times opinion piece cited here, Gilbert King, has guest-blogged on this site:

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Louisiana,Missouri,Murder,North Carolina,Notable Jurisprudence,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Shot,Theft,USA,Utah

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