Posted by: jbbeale | April 12, 2011

A trip to the gallows in 1861

Where was lawyer Barry Scheck, the lawyer who frees innocent men from death row. He may have been needed when a convict was taken by buggy sitting on a coffin to the gallows in Greensboro in 1861.

The man from Davidson County was convicted of murder, although he fiercely protested that he was innocent.

I learned of his predicament while researching a story on what Greensboro was like in April, 1861, when the Civil War began with the attack on Fort Sumter. One primary source of information was the diary of the Rev. Jacob Henry Smith of First Presbyterian Church, a man who favored secession and wrote often about his daily observations in his diary, much of them about the growing crisis between the North and South.

The planned execution had nothing to do with Fort Sumter and the Civil War, but it provided insight on how people accused of high crimes were put to death back then. Smith’s account left one wondering if an innocent man was hanged.

“He is not more than 19 or 20,” Smith wrote. “Some efforts were made to get a pardon, but a counter-petition was sent from his own county.”

Then came a strange sentence.

“He will not be hanged until the mail train comes through tomorrow.”

What possibly could the mail train’s passage have to do with the timing of the execution?

Smith visited the condemned man in jail, observing, “He wept a good deal as I talked and prayed with him.”

On may 17, Smith noted the governor rejected a request for a pardon.

“I rode with him to the gallows on his coffin,” Smith wrote.

Most likely the gallows were in what’s now east Greensboro, about where the N.C. A&T State University football practice field is now. That’s where hangings occurred up until the 1890s, with large crowds watching.

The public executions ceased in the ‘90s because they had become such a morbid public spectacle. From then on until 1910, until the state took over executions and carried them out by electrocution in Raleigh, hangings took place in the county jail.

“At the gallows I read the Palm, preached a short discourse,” the Rev. Mr. Smith wrote. “Mr. Hendron (the local Baptist preacher) prayed and I then declared at his (the condemned’s) request his public profession of faith in Jesus. He protested to the last moment that he was innocent of the crime. Just before he was swung off, I asked him if he had anything to say.. ‘Nothing except to thank you for your kindness>”

Most condemned men, seeing their situation hopeless, often confessed their crimes at the last moment and asked God’s forgiveness. The fact the man didn’t confess raises questions about his guilt. But the time between trial and execution was swift in those days. There was no time for an examination of whether the man was truly guilty.


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