The Story of Laurens County's Last Public Hanging


One hundred and twelve years ago  John Robinson was the most hated man in Laurens County.  His was a most depraved and horrific crime.  No man or woman, regardless of the color of their skin, could ever forgive John Robinson.   On May 24, 1901 Robinson was working on the farm of J.M. Reinhardt.  Bertha Simmons came to the field to bring lunch to her husband, Dock Simmons.   With a fishing pole in hand, Bertha announced her intentions to fish in a nearby creek that afternoon.  Robinson pointed her toward the creek.  A short time later Robinson quit working and left in the same direction.  He appeared flustered when he returned an hour later. Robinson then  went home with his wife to change clothes and head for Dublin.

Bertha Simmons didn't return home Friday night.  A search was initiated.  S.L. Padgett found her in a swamp on his adjoining plantation with a flour sack tied around her neck.  She had been strangled and had apparently been molested either before or after her death.  Robinson's knife, the most damning piece of evidence, was found by her side.

Justice of the Peace John C. Register held an inquest. The jury decided that Mrs. Simmons had been murdered by John Robinson.  Padgett's son remembered someone screaming for help that Friday afternoon.  A warrant was issued.  Gov. Candler offered a $200 reward for Robinson's arrest.  Robinson spent the night in Dublin, possibly at the home of Robert Andrews.  His wife was arrested and charged with being an accessory after the fact. While Robinson never confessed to his wife, she instinctively believed that something was wrong and that her husband was indeed the murderer. 

The largest number of cries calling for Robinson's capture came from members of the Black community.  A crowd took Robert Andrews down to the pavilion near the water works where he was whipped in order to get a confession.  The beaten man continued to deny any knowledge of Robinson's whereabouts.  The mob was still not satisfied.  Fearing for his safety, Andrews agreed to show the men where Robinson was hiding.  When it became apparent that they were being lead on a false trail, they took Andrews to the jail.  With no reason to hold him, the Sheriff allowed Andrews to go free.  Dan Williams, chairman of the local Republican party, called for a public meeting.  He urged "all colored and white citizens of our county to meet at the courthouse on June 7th to devise some means to capture Robinson."    

For two weeks the elusive Robinson remained at large.  On the 17th of June,  word got out that Robinson was down in the branch at Reidsville.  Reidsville was a neighborhood in the area around Academy Avenue and Dudley Street.  Shot after shot rang out in the midnight air.  John Robinson was gone, if he was ever there.  Alleged sightings of Robinson came in daily from all parts of the city.   Many thought that Robinson had fled immediately after the murder.  

Robinson, traveling as Zach Morgan, was arrested in Savannah in late June.  Robinson went there to seek the aid of a former railroad co-worker, Lewis James.  James went to the authorities when he discovered that his friend was a wanted man.  Sheriff J.D. Prince and Policeman J.J. Flanders traveled to the coastal city to bring the prisoner back for trial.  Robinson was quite talkative until the train reached Brewton.   Robinson was rendered speechless when he was strongly jeered by his own people at the depot.  

A slow rain began to fall as a large crowd gathered at the train depot in Dublin on the first day of July.  They all came to catch a glimpse of the villainous John Robinson.  The best seats were on top of box cars on the side tracks.  The crowd stretched from South Jefferson to Franklin Street and back up Franklin to the jail on the courthouse square.  When the train crossed the river, Robinson and the lawmen were met by Chief J.A. Peacock.  Chief Peacock personally took Robinson in a carriage directly to the jail.  The crowd rushed in.  Cries of "Thank God he's caught” and “you've got the right man" rang out.  Mrs. Robinson, with tears streaming down her face, ran to within two feet of her husband.  Robinson was stoic, refusing to look in her direction.
Robinson was tried and convicted on July 25th.  The verdict was never in doubt.  Judge Hart sentenced him to hang on Aug. 23, 1901.   W.S. Holly was paid a few dollars to construct a crude gallows on the M.D. and S. Railroad property near the power house.  Judge John C. Hart denied a new trial, a decision which was upheld by the Supreme Court of Georgia.   At Judge Hart's request, Judge B.D. Evans came to Dublin and ordered  Robinson be hung on January 3, 1902 between 10 and 4 o'clock.  On November 19th, jailers caught Robinson, who had broken parts of his shackles.  Rev. Norman G. McCall came to comfort Robinson on the day before his death. Robinson continued to deny his guilt.  His attorney E.L. Stephens applied to the pardoning board.  The final appeal was denied.

 It was January 3rd, John Robinson's last day on the Earth. The gallows had stood empty for nearly a half year since Robinson's trial.  Executions were supposed to be private, but  though no fence was constructed around the gallows until just days before the hanging at 10:30.  Robinson was taken from the jail  to the gallows near the pavilion on lower East Madison Street.  Around noon Robinson was led up the steps by Sheriff E.E. Hicks.  Within a few minutes it was all over.  John Robinson was dead - hanging by his neck.  Robinson's sister-in-law climbed the gallows, not out of sympathy, but for want of notoriety.  It was the last public hanging in Laurens County. 

Robinson's body was taken to the pauper's cemetery at the county poor farm where it was buried in an unmarked grave.  The next day the body was reportedly dug up and taken to Moore's Station and  put on a train.  From that point Robinson’s body may have been taken to the Atlanta College of Physicians and Surgeons for scientific study.  Poor Farm superintendent A.W. Davidson doubted the truthfulness of the reports, citing that the coffin had not been removed and there was no evidence of any disturbed soil.  No one alive today knows what ultimately happened to John Robinson.