The execution site perched on a low hill lying just east of the National Cemetery in south Fayetteville, about one mile from the county jail at the town square. Its position served well in accommodating large crowds of observers anxious to watch the hanging. The place later became known as Gallows Hill and remained in use for executions until the Civil War. After the war, in 1867, the site was taken over by the federal government and became part of the National Cemetery.
On a cold clear November day, the couple was brought by wagon to the wooden platform, a hood placed over their heads and then the noose, and last prayers uttered. It seemed the entire county’s population had turned out to witness the macabre event as the drop doors opened and Crawford and Lavinia fell into the arms of death.
Soon after the execution of his parents, John Burnett was arrested in southeast Missouri and brought back to Fayetteville. The testimony of Sharp quoted previously in this story was given by Sharp at John Burnett’s trial. On December 4, 1845, John Burnett was indicted and quickly sentenced to his fate. The same gallows awaited him. Despite his attorneys’ protestations of his innocence, of which they were fully convinced, thirty-four-year-old John Burnett was hung on the day after Christmas, December 26, 1845.
What unspeakable crime could have sent the Burnett family to their deaths?
Murder, it was alleged, planned by the aging parents and facilitated by their son John. Murder of an old man named Jonathan Selby, a recluse rumored to hoard wealth in his remote cabin, not an uncommon thread of gossip about someone who didn’t make himself known within social circles. His cash payment for his eighty acres contributed to this idea. He may have exhibited a degree of wealth by purchasing livestock or building materials for his home, outbuildings, or fences. Later court testimony revealed that he had made the mistake of allowing someone to see him place a quantity of money into his wallet.
Did the murderers find a money hoard? Did the Burnett’s daughter Minerva regret her role in her family’s execution? These are a few of the questions that linger after a crime like this, a crime that led to the first execution of a woman in the State of Arkansas.
Contrary to popular notion, Arkansas was part of the Old West along with Texas and the rest of those more familiar dusty southwestern places. Its western border joined up with the Indian Nations where many a weary marshal rode out with his bedroll and pistol carrying writs from the U. S. District Court at Fort Smith in a search for a steady stream of men rustling livestock, stealing horses, selling whiskey, or running from the law.
From its earliest days, Washington County, Arkansas, experienced some of the worst the Old West had to offer. At unexpected moments, county settlers faced their fellow man in acts of fatal violence. These murderous events not only ended hopeful lives but also forever changed those who survived them. Not to say that the murders in the county all stemmed from conflict along its western border—plenty of blood spilled within its communities and homesteads.
The fifty chapters of Murder in the County each focus on one violent incident. Through family histories, legal records, and newspaper accounts, the long-dead actors tell their shocking stories of rage, grief, retaliation, and despair. Now, for the first time, readers can discover the horrors and mysteries of those long lost days.
Available at Amazon.com