HANGIN'S IN SCOTT COUNTY
|HANGIN'S IN SCOTT COUNTY
By Roy L. Sturgill
One could spend an entire lifetime writing and compiling the more pleasant historical records and events of the people of Southwest Virginia. However, we, as well as people in all parts of the world had dark and gloomy times; and today they are forever imprinted in the record books of the Courts, and on the pages of history, as solemn reminders that the past was not always as pure and undefiled as we would like. These unsavory happenings have therefore become a part of our history.
Certainly, we are not sadists in our curiosity as to how the Courts dealt with the criminal element in the pioneer days. In Southwest Virginia we had on the benches of our Courts, and at the Bar, some of the most brilliant legal minds in the entire United States. It is indeed unfortunate that some of the criminals hold a more prominent place in history than does these judges, lawyers, and other law enforcement officers.
In the early days hanging was the method widely adopted for the infliction of the death penalty upon those convicted of first-degree murder. It was at one time considered necessary to have executions public in order to impress evildoers. The time and place was fixed within limits by sentence of the Court, between specified hours, on a certain day. Friday was customarily the day set because of its association with the Crucifixion of Christ.
Hanging the condemned was the responsibility of the County Sheriff, who in most cases was not a skilled executioner, and there were instances when the job was horribly botched. Nevertheless, he was compelled by law to perform the distasteful task to the best of his ability.
It was not until the 1908 General Assembly the Legislators became alarmed by the spectacle of public hangings, and proposed that executions be performed in "quiet dignity", with only those required by law as witnesses to be in attendance, and that all public hangings in the Commonwealth should cease.
In this article we turn back the
time, to a period many years prior to the General Assembly of 1908, and
reflect on the Court records of hangings that took place in Scott
The First was John Tumns or Tumms
An Indictment against John Tumms and George Wright for murder, a true bill.
(Called as Witnesses)
Stark Jett, Elizabeth Jett, Julia Ann Jett, George Vineyard, Paschal Jones, Goldman Davison and John Pearson were sworn in Court to give evidence to the Grand Jury upon a bill of Indictment against John Tumms, and George Wright for murder and sent to them.
(On the same day) Arraigned
John Tumms and George Wright both late of the County of Scott labourers, who stand indicted of murder, were led to the bar in custody of the jailor of this Court, thereof arraigned, and severally pleaded not guilty of the indictment. Whereupon, on the motion of the said John Tumms and George Wright, and for reasons appearing to the Court, this trial is postponed till the next Term. And the said John Tumms and George Wright are remanded to jail.
(Appearance bonds given by the following)
Stark Jett, George Vineyard, Paschal Jones, Goldman Davison, and John Pearson came into Court and acknowledged themselves to be severally indebted to John Floyd, Esq., Governor or Chief Magistrate of this Commonwealth in the sum of one-hundred dollars each, of their respective lands and tenement goods and chattels to be levied, and to the said Governor and his successors for the use of the Commonwealth rendered, yet upon this condition, that if the said Stark Jett, George Vineyard, Goldman Davison, Paschal Jones, and John Pearson shall severally make their personal appearance before the Judge of this Court on the first day of September Court next, to give evidence on behalf of the Commonwealth against John Tumns and George Wright, and shall not depart thence without leave of the said Judge, then this recognizance shall be void.
Stark Jett as the next friend of his wife Elizabeth and daughter Julia Ann (an infant) came into Court and acknowledged himself to be indebted to John Floyd, Esq., Governor or Chief Magistrate of this Commonwealth in the sum of two-hundred dollars, of his lands and tenement goods and chattels to be levied, and to the said Governor and his successors for the use of the Commonwealth rendered; yet upon this condition that the said Elizabeth Jett and Julia Ann Jett shall severally make their personal appearance before the Judge of this Court on the first day of September next, to give evidence on behalf of the Commonwealth against John Tumms and George Wright, and shall not depart thence without leave of the said Judge, then this recognizance is to be void.
(This one did not appear for the arraignment)
David Wright who stands bound by two
entered into before the Court of Scott county, in the penalty of
dollars each, to appear here this day to give evidence on behalf of the
Commonwealth against John Tumms and George Wright, was solemnly called
and came not, which default was ordered to be entered on the records.
The Trial September 10, 1832
At a Circuit Superior Court of Law and Chancery, held for Scott County thereof on Monday, the tenth day of September, 1832.
Present: Benjamin Estill Esquire, Judge.
John Tumms late of the County of
stands indicted for murder, and was heretofore arraigned thereof and
not guilty to the indictment, was again led to the bar in custody of
jailor of this Court, and thereupon came a Jury to wit: David Wininger;
William Hensley; William Haynes; Stephen Epperson; Amos Templeton;
Pace; William Slone; Burgess McKinzie; William Harris; Martin Shelton;
John Conn and Joseph Lane, who being elected, tried and sworn the truth
of and upon the premises to speak, and having heard the evidence, upon
their oath do say, that the said John Tumms is guilty of murder in the
first degree in manner and form as in the indictment against him is
And thereupon he is remanded to jail.
The Trial September 11, 1832
Benjamin Estill: Judge presiding.
George Wright late of the County of
who stands indicted for murder and was heretofore arraigned thereof and
pleaded not guilty to the indictment, was again led to the bar in
of the jailor of this Court, and thereupon came a jury to wit: John R.
Carter; Oliver Powers; William Bond; Henry Frazier; John Easterling;
Dennison; James Moore; David Nelson; Abraham Phipps; Nimrod Elam; John
Proons, and William Allen, who being elected, tried, and sworn the
of and upon the premises to speak, and having heard the evidence, upon
their oath do say, that the said George Wright is guilty of murder int
he second degree and not guilty of murder in the first degree, and they
do ascertain the term of his imprisonment in the public jail and
house to be seven years. And thereupon he is remanded to jail.
The Sentence (The Story of John
John Tumms (Tumns) late of the
County of Scott,
who stands convicted or murder in the first degree, was again led to
bar in custody of the jailor of this Court, and thereupon it being
of him if anything for himself he had or knew to say, why the Court
to judgement and execution against him, of and upon the premises,
not proceed he said he had nothing but what he had before said;
it is considered by the Court, that he be hanged by the neck until he
dead. And execution of this judgement be made and done upon him the
John Tumns by the Sheriff of Scott County, on Friday, the ninth day of
November next, between noon and three o'clock in the afternoon of the
day, at the usual place of execution or some convenient place for
And thereupon the said John Tumns is remanded to jail.
The Sentence (George Wright
the same case as Tumns)
years, the period by the jurors in their verdict ascertained, and that he be kept in a solitary cell in the said jail and Penitentiary house, on low and coarse diet, for the space of one-twelfth part of the said term. And it is ordered that the Sheriff of Scott County do, as soon as possible after the adjournment of this Court, remove and safely convey the said George Wright from the jail of this Court to the said Public Jail and Penitentiary house, therein to be kept imprisoned, and treated in manner directed by law. And the Court doth under it to be certified to the director of the Public Jail and Penitentiary. That George Wright indicted as principal in the second degree, of the murder of John Wright, was tried and convicted of murder in the second degree and sentenced to confinement in the Penitentiary for seven years. Tumns the principal int he first degree having been previously convicted of murder int he first degree and sentenced to be executed. (The Judge continues)
The principal circumstances attending the case are as follows: The prisoner came to the still house of Stark Jett in Scott County inquiring for Tumns, John and David Wright (who were his cousins, Tumns by marriage and the others by blood). That Tumns, John and David Wright shortly afterwards came to the still house aforesaid, Tumns carrying a rifle gun which he set down near the still house, which they entered and procured brandy and cider and drank until the prisoner was intoxicated, and the others considerably excited with liquor, that they frequently went out of the still house appearing to consult together, and came back Tumns with a butcher knife in his hand repouring with it, and saying what he could do with it, could kill people with it, etc. The prisoner also boasted of having formerly dirked a man, saying he could whip, throw down and outrun any person present, could whip a nation of hell cats, etc. Stark Jett became alarmed at their conduct and threats, supposing them aimed at him and left the still house going about 60 yards to his dwelling house. Tumns and the prisoner were soon afterwards seen to fall on John Wright prostrate and beat him. David, the brother of John, who was sitting on the fence apart from the others, immediately interfered and tried to pull Tumns off his brother, but not succeeding, seized an axe and struck Tumns several blows, perhaps three or four with the pole and side of the axe on the shoulders, which knocked Tumns off his brother, Tumns and the prisoner instantly ran from David who pursued Tumns with the axe, and not overtaking him threw it at him, but did not hit him. Tumns called to the prisoner to shoot him (meaning David as is supposed). The prisoner asked where the gun was. Tumns made no answer but seized the gun himself. David said: "Run John or he will kill one of us." John and David Wright immediately ran from Tumns and the prisoner, pursued by them. The prisoner asked Tumns to give him the gun and he would shoot, saying "you are too bad hurt to shoot him." Tumns said no; "You are too drunk. I will shoot him myself." They accordingly pursued John and David Wright about eighty yards, the prisoner and Tumns running side by side, when John who was considerably intoxicated finding Tumns likely to overtake him, leaped a fence and turned around, Tumns laid the gun on the fence about three steps distance from John Wright who threw up his hands and said: "Oh John! Don't shoot!" He instantly fired and John Wright fell mortally wounded, and died soon afterwards. The prisoner, who was standing at Tumns' elbow when the gun fired, immediately ran on the course he had been running, and passing through the gap of the mountain about a half a mile along the main road, was soon afterwards found eighty yards from the road in a state of beastly intoxication, brought to town and committed for trial. The body of John Wright, on a post-mortem examination, exhibited bruises and scratches in the face inflicted, as is believed, by the prisoner and Tumns when they first prostrated him at the still house. No evidence of the prisoner's character was introduced at the trial, nor did it appear what character he bears, other than is to be inferred from the foregoing facts, which show all the aid, counsel, or advice he gave Tumns to perpetrate the murder. It did not appear nor is it known or believed that the prisoner has heretofore been convicted of any felony or other infamous offense. And thereupon the said George Wright is remanded to jail.
Benjamin Estill - Judge (Circuit Court)
George McConnell, Sr., was sheriff 1831-1832 and was the man who hanged John Tumns. John D. Sharpe was Commonwealth Attorney from 1829 to 1853.
It must here be noted that the Jett
was in no way involved in the murder of John Wright, but the crime was
committed in their presence and they were called as witnesses. Nor was
Stark Jett engaged in illegal activities in the operation of a
At that period the manufacture of alcoholic beverages was legitimate
Breweries, distilleries, and saloons were numerous throughout the
No attempt is made here to discuss the moral, social, economic and
aspects of the use and restriction of alcoholic beverages, but it is
since the Jett family is mentioned so prominently, in this case, it is
only fair they be placed in proper perspective. The Jetts had large
holdings along the north fork of Holston River near the juncture of the
Washington and Scott County lines, not far from where Mendota now
From bits of information gathered here and there, one cannot help but
that the murder for which John Tumns was hanged took place in that area.
Hanging No. 2
According to Court records the second hanging in Scott County was on Friday, June 25, 1858, and was a man by the name of McDaniel Rhea.
I have checked with some of the most brilliant historical minds in Southwest Virginia, and have been unable to find anything pertinent to this case, other than Court records. The history books written of Scott County, I have been privileged to read make no mention of a McDaniel Rhea, however, it can readily be assumed Rhea was executed, since there is no further order on the books following his sentencing.
In C. A. Johnson's book titled JOHNSON'S HISTORY OF WISE COUNTY, on page 266, Chapter 23, there is recorded the hanging of Baxter S. Pate at Estillville, VA, Scott County, on the exact date as that set for the execution of McDaniel Rhea, and is shown as "Scott County's first public Hanging". Pate, it is said, took the life of John Lutterel, in a drunken brawl over a card game in a hotel at Estillville. Mr. Johnson says further: "While not an event of Wise County, it however connects with it two of Wise County's prominent pioneer citizens - Rev. Reuben Steele, who spoke the last rites for Pate, and W. D. Nottingham, Scott County jailor, who was later Gladeville's beloved Postmaster, whom everyone called "Uncle Billy."
Pate was described as being between 30 and 35 years old, of commanding appearance and very intelligent. Just prior to his execution he made a 40 minute talk in which he attributed strong drink as to the cause of his ruin, and urged others to refrain from its use.
Certainly there is no inference intended to in anyway discredit or disprove Mr. Johnson's article, but it would be next to impossible to prepare a paper on the hangings in Scott County without mentioning this chapter in his book. Secondly, it is hoped that someone will be able to clarify the mystery of two hangings on the same day at Estillville, when only one is recorded in the Court order books of Scott County, that of McDaniel Rhea.
With the assistance of the County Court Clerk, the records were thoroughly searched and there was no one by the name of Pate mentioned.
It appears from the article that Mr. Johnson got the details of this hanging from an old newspaper account, found by a lady, in the bottom of an old family trunk. And it would seem through some error in passing the story down through the years, the names of Rhea and Pate have become confused, and are perhaps one and the same person.
Could this man have been McDaniel Rhea, alias Baxter S. Pate? The actual Court records follow:
From the Court records of Scott
The Indictment, Trial, and Sentencing of McDaniel Rhea
At a Circuit Court, begun and held for Scott County, at the courthouse thereof on Monday, the 17 day of May 1858.
Present the Honorable Samuel V. Fulkerson, Judge.
James P. Carter, gentleman foreman; William Mitchell; Benjamin B. Taylor; George W. Powers; Nathan Daugherty, Sr.; William B. Spencer; David McKenny; William F. Templeton; Andrew J. Neil; Nathan Whitaker; Levi Baker; William C. Barker; James C. Larkey; Andrew France; Alexander Willis; Green C. Fields; Thomas Williams; John B. Agee; Andrew Williams; and George H. Kindrick were sworn a grand jury of inquest for the body of this County, and having received their charge, were sent to their apartment and after sometime returned into the Court and presented.
An Indictment against McDaniel Rhea, For Murder, A True Bill
At a Circuit Court continued and held for Scott County at the Courthouse thereof on Monday, the 24 day of May 1858.
Present: The same Judge as on Saturday.
McDaniel Rhea, late of the County of Scott, Labour, who stands indicted of murder, was led to the bar in custody of the Sheriff of this County, whereupon came a Jury to sit: Joshua Smith, Reubin Finney, John M. Kizer, Wilson Evans, George Finney, Charles C. Dickinson, George Banner, James Kelly, James Artrip, Jessee Fuller, William N. Selle, and George C. Gose who were elected, tried, and sworn in conformity with the provisions of the act of assembly for the trial of the said McDaniel Rhea upon the indictment aforesaid (the said McDaniel Rhea having perentonly challenged 8 jurors summoned for the said trial) and the jury sworn as aforesaid, having fully heard the evidence were with the consent of the prisoner, committed to the Sheriff of this County, who is directed to keep them together without communication with any other person, and to cause them to appear here tomorrow morning at 8 o'clock. Whereupon an oath was administered to Thomas W. Carter and William D. Nottingham, Deputy Sheriffs of this County, to the following effect, "You shall well and truly to the best of your ability, keep this jury, and neither speak to them yourselves, nor suffer any other person to speak to them touching any matter relative to this trial, until they return into court tomorrow. And the said McDaniel Rhea is remanded to jail.
At a Circuit Court continued and held for Scott County at the Courthouse thereof on Tuesday the 25th day of May 1858;
Present: The same Judge as on yesterday.
McDaniel Rhea, late of the County of Scott, Labour, who stands indicted of murder was again led to the bar in custody of the Sheriff of this County, and the jury sworn on yesterday, for his trial were brought into Court in the custody of the Sheriff of this County, and upon their oath do say, that the said McDaniel Rhea is guilty of murder in the first degree, in manner and form as in the indictment against him is alleged. Whereupon it being demanded of him if anything for himself he had or knew to say why the Court here to judgement and execution against him of and upon the premises should not proceed, he said nothing but what he had before said. Therefore it is considered by the Court that he be hanged by the neck until he be dead, and the execution of this Judgement be made and done upon him the said McDaniel Rhea by the Sheriff of Scott County on Friday, the 25th day of June next, between the hours of ten in the forenoon and two in the afternoon of the same day at the usual place of execution. And thereupon the said McDaniel Rhea is remanded to jail.
Judge Samuel V. Fulkerson served in the Constitutional Convention of 1851. He was a colonel in the Confederate forces, but had not resigned as Judge when he was killed in the Battle of Gaines Mill. During his time in the army, Circuit Court was held by Judge Gideon Camden of Harrison Co., WV. Rufus B. Fugate was sheriff of Scott County 1857-1858.
The Story of the Daniel Dean Case
Perhaps one of the most interesting murder cases ever tried in Southwest Virginia was the case of the Commonwealth against Daniel Dean in Scott County.
It was on a Monday morning, June 25, 1877, Henry Fugate was shot in the back while plowing near his home located about midway between Gate City and Nickelsville. From the wound he received on Monday, Mr. Fugate died the following Wednesday. Daniel Dean, who lived near the Fugate place was indicted for the murder at the July term of Court of Scott County 1877.
The case was tried three times in the Scott County Court. The first two trials resulted in mistrials, both the juries being unable to reach a unanimous verdict. A jury was brought from Washington County for the third trial, which took place at the May term of the Scott County Court, 1878, and the prisoner Daniel Dean was found guilty of murder int he first degree and sentenced to death by hanging.
There are many unusual and strange occurrences in connection with the trial of the Daniel Dean case. For instance, the witness who received fifty dollars from his lawyer uncle to swear falsely, and was sentenced to three years in the penitentiary for perjury. His lawyer uncle jumped out the window of the courthouse, mounted his horse and made for the Tennessee line, and was not seen in Scott County again for twenty-five years. Then there is Sheriff J. R. S. Wilhelm, who was one of the jurors at the first trial of Dean. At this trial Wilhelm had voted for acquittal of the accused. Wilhelm had not as yet been elected Sheriff for Scott County; however, prior to the actual hanging of Dean, Wilhelm was elected Sheriff of Scott County and it became his official duty to execute the prisoner whom he believed innocent. It is told that Wilhelm offered one of his deputies $300 if he would execute Dean, but the deputy declined. Shortly after the hanging of Dean, Wilhelm vanished and was never seen again or heard from by any Scott Countian.
From the Court Records Scott County - September 23, 1878
In the Clerk's office of the Circuit Court of Scott County on the 23rd day of September 1878. The following is a copy of the Order of the Supreme Court of Appeals, in the case of the Commonwealth against Daniel Dean to wit: "Virginia: In the Supreme Court of Appeals, at Staunton, on Wednesday the 11th day of September 1878. Upon the petition of Daniel Dean, a writ of error to operate as a supersedeas, but not to release the petitioner from imprisonment is awarded to a Judgement of the Circuit Court, rendered on the 27th day of August 1878, affirming a judgement of the County Court of said County rendered on the third day of June 1878, in a prosecution in the name of the Commonwealth against the said Daniel Dean, indicted for murder, by which is was considered by the Court that he be hanged by the neck until he be dead, and the execution of this judgement, be made and upon him, the said Daniel Dean, by the Sheriff of Scott County, on Friday the 12th day of July next; between the hours of ten in the forenoon and two of the afternoon of the same day, at the usual place of execution, the execution of which judgement was by the said Circuit Court suspended until the 9th day of October next.
And on the motion of the counsel of the Attorney General, it is ordered that this case be removed to Richmond, there to be heard and determined, and that this order be certified to the Clerk of this Court at Richmond, and also to the said Circuit Court of Scott County.
A copy teste: Joseph A. Waddell, Clerk
A copy teste: W. S. Rhodes, Deputy
October 13, 1879
In the Clerk's office of the Circuit Court of Scott County, in Vacation, on the 13th day of October 1879, the following order was received and entered to wit:
"Virginia: At a Supreme Court of Appeals held at the Courthouse of Wythe County in the town of Wytheville, on Thursday, the 31st day of July A. D. 1879."
Daniel Dean, Plaintiff in Error, "against" The Commonwealth, defendant in Error. Upon a Writ of Error The Commonwealth Defendant in Error to a judgement of the Circuit Court of Scott County, rendered on the 27th day of August 1878, affirming a judgement of the County Court Wythe County in the town of Wytheville, on Thursday, the 31st day of July A. D. 1879."
Daniel Dean, Plaintiff in Error, "against" the Commonwealth, Defendant in Error to a judgement of the Circuit Court of Scott County, rendered on the 27th day of August 1878, affirming a judgement of the County Court of said County, rendered on the 3rd day of June 1878 in a prosecution of The Commonwealth against the Plaintiff in Error for murder, whereby it is considered that the said Plaintiff in Error "be hanged by the neck until he be dead."
This day came again as well the Plaintiff in Error by his counsel, as the Attorney General on behalf of the Commonwealth, and the Court having maturely considered the transcript of the record of the said judgement and the arguments of counsel, is of opinion for reasons stated in writing and filed with the record, that there is no error in the said judgement. Therefore it is considered that the said judgement of the said Circuit Court of Scott be affirmed. Which is ordered to be certified to the said Circuit Court of Scott County.
A copy teste: Joe W. Caldwell, C. C.
A copy teste: W. S. Rhodes, D. C.
The decision handed down by the Supreme Court of Virginia on the Dean case, according to any number of attorneys is said to be a classic and a final word of law on circumstantial evidence. This famous opinion was written by Judge Christian, at the time a member of the Supreme Court of Virginia. In the opinion, Judge Christian observes that a line of circumstantial evidence is sometimes compared to a chain of many links. A chain is no stronger than its weakest link. A more fitting comparison declared Judge Christian, would be a rope. A rope is made up of a number of filaments or strands, which taken singly would not be strong enough to bear the stress, but when all these filaments or strands are twisted together the rope has strength more than enough to bear the stress laid upon it.
So in the Dan Dean case, there are circumstances, which taken alone, would not bear the wright of conviction, but when taken together, and considered in their relation to each other, must preclude upon the mind a moral certainty of the guilt of the accused. So reasoned Judge Christian.
The eminent judge disposes of the case by declaring there was no error to warrant a new trial, that the judgement of the lower court was affirmed and that Dean must pay the penalty of his crime: to be hanged by the neck until dead.
To name a few of the personalities of the Dean case:
Chief counsel for the defense was Patrick Hagan, said to be one of the best lawyers and one of the finest men ever produced by Scott County.
Commonwealth's Attorney was Rufus A. Ayers, who later became Attorney General of Virginia. He was assisted in the prosecution by Attorney John P. Corns and Attorney Burns.
The County Judge was H. S. K. Morrison, the Circuit Judge John A. Kelly. At the time of the killing of Henry Fugate, the Sheriff was William C. Fugate; he was succeeded in office by J. R. S. Wilhelm, whose painful duty it became to execute Dan Dean.
Wayne Powers and George Gibson pay the supreme penalty by hanging for the murder of Will Gibson.
The morning of Friday, February 6, 1885, the day appointed for the execution dawned cool and clear. The night previous, a large number of citizens had arrived, and the streets of the village of Estillville (now Gate City) presented a somewhat animated appearance. From early dawn until late at night people on horseback and in wagons had been pouring into town.
At about ten-thirty on the morning of the sixth, the crowd surged toward the Courthouse, and the cry was taken up that the prisoners were at the hack that was to carry them to the place of execution. Very soon afterwards, Sheriff W. C. R. Strong with Wayne Powers and Deputy Sheriff R. H. Cowden with George Gibson, took their seats in the hack. The guards were stationed under the direction of J. S. King and Martin Godsey, and the cavalcade took up its solemn march to the place of execution at the cedars (near where Gate City High School now stands). It was a sight never before seen in Estillville. The streets were densely packed with horsemen and people on foot from the village to the grounds.
The place selected for the hanging was a little north of the Cedar Schoolhouse, in a hollow. As the hack neared the scaffold, the hills surrounding the spot were covered with faces, all watching with breathless interest in the entire proceedings.
The hack reached its destination, and the prisoners, guards, officers, and a few spectators took their positions inside the guard rope, but outside the building in which the scaffold was erected. It was here the condemned men were allowed to make their last statements. Within a short time both men were conducted inside the building and were hanged by the neck until dead in accordance with the sentence of the Court. Thus they paid with their lives for their dastardly crime.
Events leading up to the crime are as follows: Wayne and Jonas Powers two brothers, George and Will Gibson, the latter cousins, had been absent from Scott County from some months, residing in West Virginia. In the spring of 1884 they concluded to visit their homes, and in company, started on their journey. On Saturday evening April 20, 1884, they stopped at the house of John Ramsey and purchased brandy, then started for Chestnut Ridge, lying close to the Russell line, where a quiet spot was chosen for the crime.
We here take a portion of the confession and statement of George Gibson: After telling of his boyhood and other events leading up to his leaving Scott County and going to West Virginia, he tells of the crime as follows: "We started for Scott County, Virginia, on April 14, 1884. Before starting, Wayne and Jonas Powers made known to us their wish to come with us (George and Will Gibson), but we endeavored to avoid them as we supposed they would want us to bear their expenses, but they fell in with us and after a journey of six days, we arrived at John Ramey's on Clinch River (near where Dungannon now stands) about dark on the 19th day of April 1884, and it is here the history of this sad calamity begins. Leaving Jonas Powers and Will Gibson in Broad Shoal Gap, a short distance from John Ramey's, Wayne Powers and I went to John Ramey's and bought six pints of brandy, returned to where they were, built up a fire and being weary and footsore, remained there drinking the liquor and resting for near three hours. Will Gibson had my pistol and loaded it while there. Wayne Powers also loaded his pistol.
We then crossed Clinch River in a canoe: William Gibson fell out into the river and then handed my pistol back to me. We all traveled along together until we got near Charles Horn's at the foot of Chestnut Ridge. Here Jonas Powers left us and went in the direction of Charles Horn's. I saw him no more until I saw him under arrest after the murder. Myself and the other two went along together until we arrived near the top of Chestnut Ridge. Wayne Powers and Will Gibson were five steps in advance of me and were quarreling. Wayne stepped back and shot Gibson in the back of the head; he ran and cried out "Run here George, your friend Will Gibson is shot. I (George Gibson) pursued after and fired two shots at him (Will Gibson), one of them, and I think only one, hit him. He fell and I sprang upon, and cut him three times, once on the hip, once in the side, and then cut his throat. Wayne run up at this time, cocked his pistol and wanted to shoot him again, but I told him not to do that. He asked, "Has he got enough?" I answered yes, for he was then dead. We then considered as well as we could in our drunken condition, what we should do with the body, and decided to burn it. We piled rails on it and Wayne then pulled sage grass and put under them, and I fired it with a match. We did not kill him for his money or clothing. But after he was dead we thought it was useless to destroy his money and clothes, so we divided the nine dollars and twenty cents between us, which was all he had. I took his clothing and we burned his satchel and some clothing. We parted about an hour and a half before day." (End quote)
The next morning smoke was seen rising from the spot by S. P. Porter and his wife while on the way to preaching. They investigated the cause and fond portions of the unconsumed body. The news of the murder spread rapidly, and on Monday, Richard Hager, Ambrose Taylor, and Alex Austin had the three men (George Gibson, Wayne Powers, and Jonas Powers) arrested on the charge of having killed Will Gibson. They were taken to Sinking Creek Church and an examination before Justice Ramey was held. They were bound over, brought to Scott County and lodged in jail on Wednesday, April 23, 1884.
The were indicted by the grand jury of the May term of the County Court. Judge Martin B. Woods presiding, and on being arraigned upon the indictment of murder, plead not guilty. They all elected to be tried in the Circuit Court and were remanded back to prison.
At the August term of the Circuit Court, Judge John A. Kelly presiding. Jonas Powers was placed on trial. The trial lasted several days, and the jury, after deliberating for twenty-four hours, failed to agree and were dismissed.
The cases of Wayne Powers and George Gibson were continued until the November term of the Circuit Court.
At the November term of the court
men were tried, each separately and by a different jury. Jonas H.
was first to be tried, the verdict was murder in the first degree.
Powers was next and the verdict was the same. Last was George Gibson,
trial lasted from Saturday of one week until Friday of the following
however, the verdict was the same as the other two. Together, the three
trials lasted almost three weeks. Judge John A. Kelly presided at each.
The people were represented by Commonwealth's Attorney H. W. Holdway,
unassisted, labored with a conscientious desire to uphold law and order
and the protection of society. The Powers boys were represented and
defended by the law firm of Richmond and Duncan. Attorney John P.
along with Richmond and Duncan, defended George Gibson.
When asked if either had anything to say before sentence was passed upon them, Jonas Powers declared he wanted to say he was not guilty. Wayne Powers said he had nothing to say. Gibson said he did not get justice. They took their seats and Judge Kelly, with impressiveness and solemnity, pronounced the following death sentence against them. He started by first repeating their names: Jonas H. Powers, Wayne Powers, and George Gibson. "Such a scene as we now look upon is seldom witnessed in a Courtroom. Under our mild and human laws, a single convict is rarely at the bar of the court awaiting the sentence of death. In my service on the bench of this Circuit Court of more than fourteen years, I have had only three times to pronounce such a sentence. Now you three stand before me convicted, each of murder in the first degree, to which the law affixes the death penalty. It would be useless to review the details of your crime, if the juries have not been mistaken in their verdicts, that crime is without parallel. It is shortly this - that for a few dollars and two or three suits of wearing apparel of the victim, you deliberately killed your associate traveling with you in the confidence of friendship, and in the attempt to conceal the evidence of your guilt, spent hours of the night in which the deed was done standing around his body, heaping fencing rails upon it until it was almost wholly consumed. But the effort at concealment failed. It is almost always the case that the circumstances attending the murder press so closely upon the heels of the murderer that he can not escape them. So the circumstances surrounding this murder pointed to you and led to your arrest, and you have been brought to trial. A separate and different jury of twelve honest men have passed upon each of your cases and have found you guilty. As the evidence is in most of its features the same in each case, it is the equivalent to the judgement of thirty-six jurymen. (Here the paper is worn and was unable to read well enough to copy, RLS.) The Judge continues: The three former occasions in which I have been called to pronounce the death sentence, though but one unfortunate prisoner was to be doomed, my heart recoiled from it. I shuddered at the thought. But how much more trying when I see three unfortunate human faces looking upon me awaiting their sentences. I hesitate to pronounce them. But an unavoidable duty, the imperative mandate of the law compels me to do so. But before I do, I would admonish you to use the time given you to make all possible preparation for death. Though this Court can see no relief which can be legally extended to you; though no other human tribunal may be able to grant you relief, yet so infinite is the mercy of God, that even the darkest of crimes do not close the door of hope to those who appeal to Him. Forgiveness and pardon He freely gives to those who are about to perish on account of crime, if they approach Him in true contrition and repentance. And with most profound regret that so terrible a duty devolves on me, I must pronounce upon you each the judgement of law, which that each of you be taken to the jail of the county from whence you came, and from thence to the place of execution, on Friday the 6th day of February next (1885), and there be hanged by the neck till you are dead, and may God have mercy on your souls.
(The three men were sentenced November 28, 1884, Judge Kelly's lengthy discourse is not incorporated in its entirety in the court records of Scott County. The above sentencing was carried in The Progressive Age, a newspaper printed at Estillville, Scott Co., VA, of December 4, 1884, and reprinted in the February 5, 1885 issue of the same paper, a copy of which is owned by Mr. S. D. Bledsoe, Superintendent of Natural Tunnel, and to whom I am grateful for his assistance in helping me on this article on Gibson and Powers). (The entire court proceedings of this case may be found in Law Book, Number 3 of the Circuit Court of Scott County.)
During the passing of sentence and the discourse of Judge Kelly in his delivery of the judgement. Jonas Powers chewed his tobacco without visible emotion. Wayne fixed his gaze upon the floor and remained unmoved to the close. Gibson was nervous and pale, and occasionally looked at the Judge.
Counsels for Jonas Powers made a motion to set aside the sentence in his case and grant him a new trial. The Court, in a feeling manner, denied the motion and ordered the proceedings to be spread upon the Court records. The counsel for Jonas carried his case to the Governor, who, after hearing the statement of counsel, granted a stay of execution for thirty days.
In addition to the confession and statement of George Gibson, made previous to the day of execution, he also addressed the huge crowd gathered for the hanging for some 20 minutes. Near the end he said, "I acknowledge the crime. I killed Will Gibson. Wayne shot him first, and I shot and killed him. I then helped to burn his body. I had nothing against him! It was not for the nine dollars and twenty cents and his clothing that I did the deed, but it was because I was drunk and didn't know what I was doing, until it was too late. I want to say that Jonas Powers was not with us when we did the killing. He knew nothing of it, and is as innocent of that crime as any man or woman I see before me, and in God's name I ask you all to assist in setting Jonas Powers at liberty, for he is an innocent man." Gibson further states, "Society would do well to banish forever liquor from its midst. I who have been decoyed to my ruin by it, might with some show of just reproach turn upon that people whose laws license this most deadly and dangerous of all agents and say, "shake not thy gory locks at me."
Wayne Powers also made a statement from the gallows exculpating his brother Jonas, and said that there were none on the ground at the time of the murder except the two Gibsons and himself.
So the hideous nightmare of the Gibson and Powers case that started the night of April 19, 1884, ended on that cold clear day of Friday, February 6, 1885, on the fallows near the Cedars Schoolhouse.
These old stories are to some better to be forgotten, yet violence has always played a part in man's survival, and as we preserve the good things in life, we must also hold on to the unsavory events that went to make the good things come to pass. And so it is with historians to hold on to the past, fragmentary though some stories may be, they will always be preserved in the archives of our country.
I am indebted to Court Clerk Harry Penley, Scott Co., VA, and his efficient staff for their interest and assistance. The items of public record were filed in such a manner that the information needed was immediately available. I appreciate the discussion and correspondence with a number of historians and old timers, such as: Roy V. Wolfe, Sr., of Gate City, Luther F. Addington of Wise, Earl Broadwater of Salem, Emory Hamilton of Wise, Rev. Hampton Osborne of Clintwood, and many others.
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