|Heard County, GA
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John W. Smith Hangs in Presence of 3,000 People.
Graffic Account of the Execution by a Special Reporter of the Free Press.
The Wretched Man Proclaims His Innocence to The Last, and Meets His Death with Remarkable Pluck.
Everybody, perhaps, is already familiar with the facts and incidents connected with the killing of Bonner Barker some two years ago,
by John W. Smith, in Heard county. A repetition of the details of this horrible tragedy, would be of no interest to the readers of this
paper at this time. That the crime was one almost unequalled by anything that has ever happened in western Georgia is apparent
from the evidence adduced on the trial.
The perpetrator of this outrageous murder was a man whom everybody feared and shunned, except such as courted his friendship.
No man that knew him well felt safe in his company, if he had imbibed to freely of whisky. His presence created alarm because his
name was a terror to the people. His enemies dreaded him. It is true that when a man's character once becomes of a desperate
nature, and the people see in him evils that are put into execution, deeds of violence are manufactured and exaggerated and placed
to his debit, and it may be so in regard to the subject of this article. If so, all false and manufactured deeds attributed to him should be
quelled and there circulation stopped, as the law has been vindicated, the price paid and the defendant not able to stand before the
accuser and contradict or deny them. Neither would it be beneficial to relate the crimes of Smith which are actually true. That he killed
Barker, everyone believes to be true; that he was executed by hanging for the commission of that crime three thousand people know.
On the 17th of June the respite which Gov. Gordon had granted him was at an end, and Franklin, the county seat of the county where
the murder was committed, was the place for the execution. The gallows was erected some half a mile north of town in a beautiful
grove on the banks of the Chattahoochee river, on the identical spot where in 1884 two negroes were hanged for a like offense.
It was made of 12 inch plank set upright like building a box, and 8x12 feet square and about 16 feet from the top of these planks and a
trap door built precisely in the center of this floor. A crosspiece or beam ran across from east to west about seven feet from the floor to
which was fastened one end of the rope. The rope was a large grass one and no one apprehended of its breaking.
At ten o'clock the Sheriff John Lipscombe together with one or two assistants went into the jail and adjusted the rope around the neck
of the unfortunate culprit. He was placed in a hack with four other gentlemen and occupied a seat beside the sheriff whose arm was
around his body all the way. Before the arrival of the doomed man upon the ground there had already congregated upward of 800
people, but the news of the approach of the hack was heralded by the rush of the crowd from town.
On they came through the woods, down the hill like a sweeping, mighty avalanche everyone eager to secure a place where they might
catch a glimpse of the unfortunate man. From the river, east for fifty yards where the gallows was erected it is perfectly level, when a
hill rises abruptly back for seventy yards making a complete amphitheatre, as if nature had purposely built it that everyone who so
desired could hear the doomed man talk, and look once more on their county's worst citizen.
Smith ascended the steps to the gallows with a firm step not showing the least concern - seeming almost indifferent as to what was to
follow. In the gallows besides the sheriff and four guard, were the physicians, ministers, and reporters of the press.
JAMES CRAVEN an uncle of John sat by his side and was the coolest, most composed man ever seen under the circumstances.
He like Smith showed the completest pluck and nerve that was ever manifested upon the gallows. CRAVEN had said that John should
be executed according to law and decently, and anyone could have told by his stern, determined expression that he was there to see
that such was done.
A rope had been stretched around the gallows and a strong guard of over fifty, armed with guns, placed inside to prevent the throng
from crowding the gallows. The physicians had recommended that Smith should have stimulants and Ex-sheriff Stephens gave him
toddy every few moments. To illustrate the unfortunate man's composure he was sitting in a chair on the trap door with the rope around
his neck and adjusted to the beam overhead smoking a cigar with as much dignity as a judge, when something underneath gave way,
letting the door fall some six inches. Smith just stepped aside and remarked that somebody had not done their work well.
Rev. Dr. Leak stepped forward to the door and asked the crowd to remain silent, and he read the 3rd chapter of Saint Luke.
He then by request of Smith read the 3rd chapter of Peter and sang the old hymn "Am I born to die." All then knelt in prayer and while
thus engaged Smith wept freely.
Some very bad conduct on the part of the crowd was here indulged in. During the divine services, men and boys had climbed up tall
trees and were hollowing and talking and laughing. After Smith had finished his cigar he got up in a chair and addressed the crowd.
We cannot give all he said and just as he said it, but will give the most important. He praised Judge Harris and said that
he wanted everybody to know that he was a good man, and pure Judge. Thanked Governor Gordon for the respite granted him.
"You all see that my time is short I am condemned to die by being hung. I want you to know that I am wrongfully condemned.
I know it, but you do not. I am very weak, been in prison over two years and I ought not to have been. There were a great many lies
sworn against me, some outrageous, but the truth was told occasionally. I tell you all now that I did not kill Bonner Barker. I know I
have to die in a few minutes, and solemnly declare to you that I did not kill him, I never knew that he was dead until next morning when
my younger brother told me of it.
I could have a row here now by telling things I know, but I am not able or calculated to talk. I don't know hardly one minute what I said
a minute before. It seems that I have no friends. I have been a good friend to some of you, but when I got into this trouble and needed
you, every one evaded me. But I love everybody. I love you who have forsaken me now. There are reports that I am a bad man.
It is true, I have drank whisky, and so have they who have been with me. I never in my life ill-treated anybody that treated me right.
I said I had drank whisky. Yes, I am sorry of it, it has been (my) ruin. It brought me to this, and it will bring you to it if you fool with it.
Little boys, don't never touch the stuff. It will certainly ruin you. When I would contend for my rights these people who have forsaken
me to day feared me; but when I gave up they always treated me bad. Some of them have done me low down mean tricks. So mean
that it would make you ashamed for them were I to tell you. I know there are some here who will be glad to see me die. They are just
as mean and guilty as I am. I could convict some of them now. I could take $25 and get 15 in this crowd to swear away the life of any
man. They would swear anything, I know them well and know this is true. These same parties kicked because the Governor gave
me 20 days of life. They kick at any favor shown me but I forgive them all. I have prayed for them three weeks. It is not right that I
should be hung, no, no, no."
(Here he broke and sat down weeping bitterly. More stimulants were given and he resumed.)
"I have a hope. These people who have treated me so bad ought not to be allowed to live here. Some one else may have to
suffer on their accounts as I now have to suffer. No one should be condemned by their evidence, as I know they swore lies on me.
I hope God will bless my poor wife-I do hope she will go to heaven. And my poor mother, Lord have mercy upon her. She has spent all
she had to save me from this. She is a good woman, but she will not be respected now. People here in Franklin will not respect her,
but she is better than they are. I am willing to die, but have to die wrongfully. You will never know the truth of this matter but after I am
gone I want you all to investigate it for yourselves. Neither of us went to Barkers for a fuss. I had nothing against him, no more than I
have against one of you and if it had not been for the tales Ben Maxwell had told Bonner would be alive today. I see his father over
there, and he knows I am telling the truth. Maxwell caused all this trouble. I want to explain a portion of the letter you all saw in the
constitution. I said in that letter that Lipscombe had sworn a lie on me, and the paper here said I had lied, for Lipscombe was no
witness in the case. This is all I know about it: Judge Adamson came to me in jail at Atlanta and said that Lipscombe had made an
affidavit that I told him I killed Bonner Barker. If he swore that he swore a lie and he knows it. If he did not, I take back that portion of
the letter. The rest of the letter is all true."
The speaker went on to say something else which would be of no interest to the public. He sat down and talked some time to Senator
Jackson. He has written a life of himself and put it in the hands of his brother for publication, and requested that he would sell copies
of it and give his wife half the profits arising therefrom. The sheriff then asked everybody to go down, except three guards. When all
had left John offered up a prayer and his hands and feet were tied. He begged all the time for the sheriff not to kill him and said to him,
"John, are you going to cut the rope, sure enough," and when an affirmative answer was given, he said,
"Farewell, friends, farewell."
The black cap was now drawn over his face and the sheriff taking a large hatchet, bade him good-bye three times. His arm was
uplifted, the hatchet descended, severing the rope, and at seven minutes to two o'clock. John W. Smith hung between heaven and
earth. His neck was not broken and he seemed to die an easy death, making but one convulsion. No one was allowed inside the
gallows but three physicians. He was reported dead in eleven minutes and cut down. Sheriff Lipscombe took the rope off his neck
and threw it to the crowd, who cut it into small pieces, each one carrying off a piece to keep as a souvenir.
Poor fellow, no one shed a tear, no one mourned his death, friendless and alone, his soul entered the presence of God to answer the
numerous crimes he had committed. The guard escorted the body to town and across the river, to prevent any trouble that might occur
to it. The remains were brought to the cemetery near Dr. Green's in this county and buried close to the grave of his father.
Thus ended the existence of a noted character. He had some good traits. When he liked a man, he would do anything in his power
for him, but when he once disliked one, he was sure to revenge himself, if possible.
Newspaper Article was located and generously shared by Wylie Hutchens.
Article was transcribed by Jan Nance as recorded in the paper. Every attempt was made to type as printed in paper.
NOTE. I have made every attempt to leave the wording and spelling as it is found in the article. Exception is capitalizing the
name of James Craven and Craven.
brought to the web by: Wylie Hutchins & Jan Nance
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