Quintessential Justice

One gallows. One hangman. One fine day. Three bodies buried. Three families grieving. Three speedy trials. Five coffins waiting. Five nooses tightened. Five necks broken. Ten legs dangling. Ten thousand eyes staring. Justice served. Justice done. Hooray for the hangman!

@ Vanishing Georgia.  Sheriff Dunham is on the ground, standing near the center of the photograph.

The Montgomery County jail was infested with villainous murderers. And, Judge Christopher C. Smith was ready to rid the jail of the vermin, who had been plaguing the citizens of Montgomery County. Twenty-one prisoners, nine charged with murder, would soon know their fate. Judge Smith issued an order on August 1, 1893 to begin the process of clearing the jail. Judge Smith, who was in his first year on the bench of the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit, ordered that the most serious offenders were to be tried before the court and juries beginning on the 4th day of September.

First on the docket was the oldest case, the State vs. Weldon Gordon. Gordon and his accomplice, the master murderer Nick Nutting, had gotten into an argument with one Barney Neal of Montgomery County. During the struggle, Gordon negligently killed Neal's young daughter, Zerida. Nick Nutting, who had been known to have killed at least a half dozen men, was hung by the neck on the 26th of May. Blue Ridge Circuit Judge George Gober, sitting on the bench in the stead of Judge Smith, called the cases to order. Thomas Eason and C.D. Loud represented the State of Georgia during the long week of trials. Gordon, represented by Messers Beasley and Hines of Mt. Vernon, was convicted of murder in a trial which began after lunch and concluded just in time for the jurors to eat a late supper.

The next morning, the defendant Purse Strickland stood before the court. Strickland was charged with the premeditated malice murder of Jim Locklear. The two men got into an argument which culminated when Locklear shot at Strickland's dog and threatened to kill him as well. After a short cooling off period, Strickland snuck into Locklear's residence and shot Locklear in the back of his head while he was eating his supper. The trial was over in two hours. Strickland was found guilty of murder.

On Wednesday morning, the most celebrated case filled the courtroom with spectators and the courthouse grounds with thousands of captivated bystanders. Lucien Manuel, Hyre Brewington, and Hiram Jacobs were charged with the heinous murder of Alex Peterson, a popular express agent in nearby Ailey. The three defendants, all said to be Scuffletonians of mixed white, black and Indian blood, had quickly confessed to their heinous crime to Sheriff George W. Dunham, who was praised by Georgia governor W.J. Northern for his quick removal of the men from the throngs of vengeful lynch mobs by taking them to Savannah for safe keeping. Northern was especially proud of Dunham's ingenuity in using a gathering of a brigade of ministers to protect the innocent until proven guilty. The preachers happened to have been convening in town earlier in the day doing God's work. Despite the best efforts of defense attorneys W.L. Clarke and L.D. Nicholson, the trio was found guilty after only two minutes of deliberation by the jury. Ashley Manuel and Hezekiah Brewington, brothers of two of the defendants, were found innocent of the charge of murder and released without a trial.

Other defendants met lady justice that week, but these five convicted killers were sentenced to a date with the hangman on September 29, 1893. As the day for the hanging approached, there was electricity in the air. Thousands and thousands of the vengeful and the just plain curious began to assemble in the county capital of Mt. Vernon. All during the night and throughout the morning before the hanging, the five condemned men were consoled by the prayers of the Rev. Samuel Ross, a colored Methodist minister. By the best estimates of reporters, nearly a hundred Negroes gathered around the jail to pray for the condemned and serenade them with religious melodies.

Just about noon, Montgomery County Sheriff Dunham and his deputies loaded the defendants into a wagon and set off on a half mile journey to the gallows, custom constructed for the purpose of the mass hanging. Sheriff Dunham read the death warrants. With nerves of cold steel, Manuel, Brewington, Jacobs, Gordon and Strickland climbed the ladder of death. Gordon and Strickland puffed their last cheap cigars. In dead silence, each man looked down on the grave of one Will Blash, who had been hung on the same spot some two years prior. Off to the side, they gazed upon five new and empty coffins, their own coffins. D. McEachin read a prepared statement on behalf of Weldon Gordon attributing his ruin to whiskey. Gordon reminded the masses of the evils of alcohol. In his last words, the child killer thanked the sheriff and jailer for keeping him alive until the hanging. He forgave the lawmen and prayed for their future health.

Strickland told the crowd the he killed Locklear in self defense. Then Rev. Ross led the crowd in prayer followed by a recitation of the dirge, A Charge to Keep I Have. Lucien Manuel echoed the other comments by confessing that alcohol led him to kill Alex Peterson. Hiram Jacobs confirmed his co-conspirator's comments. Rev. Wm. Moore led the assembled multitude in another hymn. After a final prayer by the Rev. G.B. Allen, Sheriff Dunham tied the doomed men's arms, adjusted their nooses, just in time for one final prayer. As he placed black hoods over the five condemned souls, Sheriff Dunham muttered, "Goodbye boys and may God have mercy on your souls." At 2:02 on the afternoon of September 29, 1893, hangman Dunham, pulled the trap doors open. Five bodies dangled for twenty-one agonizing minutes.

The bodies of Gordon and Strickland were loaded on wagons by their families and taken away for private burials. The other three corpses were shipped to medical schools in Atlanta. While under the care of undertaker David T. Howard in his Calhoun Street mortuary, a large crowd, mostly black, stormed the morgue, breaking paints, glass, and jars of embalming fluids trying to get a last glance of the twisted and swollen cadavers before they were dipped into the pickling vats.

As the souvenir hunters picked up the last shreds of murderabilia and the cooler days of September were coming to an end, those who came walked away knowing the justice was done. It was one of the largest, if not the largest, public executions in the history of Georgia, and one of the last public hangings outright. The hangman, Sheriff Dunham, would see only one more September. He was fatally shot in the face in the spring of 1895 when he confronted William Connell, who had allegedly made remarks about his wife. Dunham's friends riddled Connell with their pistol bullets and shotgun shot. And, the devils laughed out loud from the bowels of Hell.


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Scott, the J. Clayton Stephens Museum of Local History in Soperton, owns a piece of hangman's rope, claimed to having been used in the famous hanging. It's likely that many yards of rope were sold for souvenirs.
Scott Thompson said…
Wow! I figured that people would want some. What a terrific piece of our past. Thanks for your interest Bill.
Olivia said…
You wrote:
"Dunham's friends riddled Connell with their pistol bullets and shotgun shot."
I believe there may be some inaccuracies in this account. It is my understanding that William S. "Wild Bill" Connell fled to Florida and died approximately 1933.
Scott Thompson said…
Olivia, I was going by the newspaper account of the day. That very well may have happened. I will invetigate. Thanks for the tip.
Forest Hazel said…
Hi Scott,
I'm working on a short historical article on this hanging, and would like to talk to someone local to get more info. I have read 10-12 news articles about it, but have some other questions about locations involved. Do you know anyone who night be interested in discussing it? I also need to find out if the court records are still in Mt. Vernon, or the state archives.
I can be reached at fhazel@mebtel.net
Forest Hazel