HANGING IN RUSSELL COUNTY
|HANGING IN RUSSELL COUNTY
By Roy L. Sturgill
THE YEAR WAS 1873, THE PLACE LEBANON, RUSSELL COUNTY, VIRGINIA
John Hurt was missing from his home near Lebanon, and had been for several days. It now seemed certain he had met with foul play. Arch Johnson, a six-foot four-inch negro farm worker, was suspected of having killed him, but no evidence actually existed that he had done the killing.
It is related that a group of men searching for the body asked Arch to assist in finding Hurt in the hope that he would in some way reveal his guilt. The story as told over the years, is that the group or posse stopped on a hillside to scan the distant terrain. While there, Arch is said to have exclaimed, "There he is behind that log on yon hillside." It was the mistake the searchers were hoping Arch would make. The distance was so great, it was impossible to have seen an object the size of a man's body, and neither could they see behind the log. A closer search revealed Hurt's body behind the log, where only the killer himself could have known it was hidden.
According to court records, John Hurt was slain in the month of January 1872. Arch Johnson was brought to trial the 29th day of April, 1873. Russell County's first courthouse was destroyed by fire earlier in the year 1873 and Arch's trial was held in the Lebanon Methodist Church. Below is the exact transcript of the second day of the trail as taken from the court records of Russell County.
April 10, 1873 - At a Circuit Court continued and held for Russell County at the Courthouse thereof on the 30th day of April, 1873.
Present, Same Judge as on yesterday - Archy Johnson who stands indicted of a murder by him committed in this County and within the Jurisdiction of this Court in this that on the...day of January 1872 in and upon the body of John Hurt in the piece of the Commonwealth, then and there being feloniously willfully of his malice aforethought did make and assault, and the said Archy Johnson a certain gun of the value of $5.00 he then and there in both hands, then and there had and held, then and there feloniously, willfully, and of his malice aforethought did discharge and shoot off to against and upon the body of the said John Hurt; and that the said Archy Johnson with the leaden bullet aforesaid out of the gun by him discharged and shot off as aforesaid then and there feloniously, willfully and of his malice aforethought did strike, puncture and wound him the said John Hurt in and upon his body, giving to him the said John Hurt and then and there with the leaden bullet aforesaid so as aforesaid discharged and shot out of the gun aforesaid by the said Archy Johnson in and upon the body of the said John Hurt one mortal wound of which said mortal wound he then and there instantly died. And further that the said Archy Johnson him the said John Hurt in the manner and by the means aforesaid feloniously, willfully, and of his malice aforethought did kill and murder. Was this day again set to the bar in custody of the Sheriff and thereupon came the Jury sworn in the case on yesterday pursuant to their adjournment to wit: Abram Salyer; Richard L. Smith; Elijah Rasnake, Sr.; Nelson H. Fraley; Samuel Burk; William Litton; Thomas M. Gibson; Samuel B. Owens; James M. Lark; Aaron Cumbow; William H. Mead; and Martin P. Barrett, and after having heard all the evidence and arguements of counsel, withdrew from the bar to consult upon their verdict and after some time returned into court, and upon their oaths do say, "We the Jury find the prisoner Archy Johnson guilty of murder in the first degree." Whereupon the prisoner by his counsel moved the court to set aside the verdict of the Jury and grant him a new trial, which motion was opposed by the Attorney for the Commonwealth and the Court took time until tomorrow morning to consider the motion aforesaid, and thereupon the Jury was discharged and the said Archy Johnson was remanded to jail. John A. Kelly, Judge
The following day exactly as recorded on court records Russell County:
May 1, 1873 - Archy Johnson who stands convicted of murder in the first degree was this day again set to the bar in custody of the Sheriff, and the Court having maturely considered the motion made yesterday to set aside the verdict of the Jury and grant the prisoner a new trial is of the opinion that the verdict of the Jury is sustained by the testimony, the motion is therefore overruled. And thereupon it being demanded of the prisoner if anything for himself he had or knew to say why the Court should not now proceed to pronounce judgement and execution against him according to law, and nothing being offered or alleged in delay of judgement, it is considered by the Court that the said Archy Johnson be taken to the jail of this County and from thense to the place of execution; on Friday the 13th day of June between the hours of 12 p.m. and 3 p.m. and there be hanged by the neck until he be dead. And thereupon the said Archy Johnson was remanded to Jail.
On motion of James J. Henritze, jailor of Russell County an dit appearing to the Court that it is necessary for the safekeeping of Archy Johnson who is now confined in jail under sentence of death, that a good and sufficient guard be kept at said jail. The said jailor is therefore ordered to summons and keep at said jail a good and substantial guard until the day of execution.
Signed: John A. Kelly, Judge
The hanging took place as ordered on Friday the 13th day, June 1873. The scene was a hastily erected scaffold just north of Lebanon, in a small valley resembling an amphitheater. More than 5,000 men, women and children (white and colored) were said to have jammed the crowded hillside overlooking the place of execution from dawn that day until the trap was sprung on the huge Negro.
The streets of this small southwest Virginia town were crowded with the curious who had come for miles from other counties of Virginia and adjoining states to see this once in a lifetime event. Officers had to clear the way as the wagon bearing Arch sitting atop his coffin wended its way from the jail to the hanging site. It is said that Arch puffed on a long black cigar as he made his triumphant entry into the hollow that was to bear his name ever after.
Exactly at high noon on that fateful day, the trap was sprung and Arch fell through the trapdoor, his neck broken, his debt to society paid. As the trap was sprung, the story goes, a small Negro boy standing on top of the hill fainted and tumbled end over end to the bottom, where he quickly recovered at the foot of the scaffold and scampered back into the crowd.
It is not known just where Arch was buried. The older citizens of Lebanon say they recall the scaffold standing for many years afterwards - perhaps as Arch's only tombstone. The scaffold is gone, the story almost forgotten. The hillside amphitheater remains - only a few minutes walk from the business section of Lebanon. It has been almost one hundred years since Russell County's last and perhaps only legal hanging.
Information from old newspaper accounts and Circuit Court Records of Russell County.
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