Monday, June 27, 2011

Champ Shumate's Cow and the Hanging of William Austin 1884 - Garrard County KY


The Semi-Weekly Interior Journal reported on Tuesday, June 24, 1884, that Champ Shumate's two year old heifer was giving three gallons of milk a day and yet she had never had a calf.  Most people probably assumed she started giving milk because a calf started suckling from her but others believed there was a different reason and they attribute it to the fact the cow had been born on the same day that Austin had been hanged.

Who was Austin and why was he hanged?  The following is the story of William Austin, the last man who was hanged in Garrard County, Kentucky, on October 13, 1882.



On January 20, 1882, in Garrard County, Kentucky people were shocked by the murder of Betsy Bland, an old maid of 85.  Her grand nephew, William Austin had been drinking a lot and told some passersby that she had been murdered.  What they found when they entered the home was Betsy Bland "lying on the floor in a pool of her own blood, with several deep gashes from an ax on her head and face and another on the neck which severed the vertebra, any one of which would have been fatal."  After noticing there were blood stains on Austin's pants and boots Sheriff J.M. Higginbotham and Marshal Singleton arrested him.  Using their powers of observation, which were about the only crime scene investigation tools they had, they noticed that Austin's boot heel had blood but also gray hairs which were consistent with the hair of the dead woman.  The circumstantial evidence was such that they took him back to the jail and refused Austin bail.

Austin's trial took place on February 13, 1882 (less than a month since the crime!) and 150 men were examined before seating the jury.  Testimony was given and the jury came back with a verdict of guilty and a punishment of hanging.  "With the indifference that had characterized him since the murder, he said with a smile:  "well, it's no use to cry over it".  The execution was fixed for April 18, 1882 but through numerous filings by Austin's attorneys the case was sent to the Court of Appeals and Austin was sent to Richmond for safekeeping.  Austin was able to get his hands on a razor and attempted to kill himself but it hurt so much he stopped after severing the outer jugular vein.  I bet Austin never gave any thought to the amount of pain that his victim, Betsy Bland felt!

On October 13, 1882, at the jail in Lancaster, Ky a crowd of 3000 people gathered to get a glimpse of "the legal neck breaking of William Austin".  It would be relatively easy to see since the gallows were in the rear of the jail and the platform stood higher than the plank fence which surrounded it.  William Austin made a confession about an hour before the execution:

I did murder my aunt Betsy Bland, on the 20th of last January,  Whiskey was the sole cause of it.  I had nothing in the world against her; I had no motive in the world to kill her.  I loved her like a mother.  She has always been as a mother to me.  I am 25 years old.  I did not rob her or take any money or other things from her.  When I got home from the still house I saw the as at the wood pile and then the awful thought came over me to take it and kill my great aunt.  I did take it and when I got into her room, she was sitting at the fire knitting.  I first sat down near the fire and several minutes thereafter I arose with the ax and struck her with the sharp edge of it.  This is all I recollect about the killing.  I have no excuse on earth to offer for this fearful deed.  I want my fate to be a warning to all; old, young, white and black. I offer myself a willing sacrifice on the gallows for the deed.  I die happy, believing that the vilest sinner can be forgiven if he truly repents.  I believe God has given me full pardon.  I believe my aunt was a christian and that I will meet her in Heaven.  I have been accused of killing Sid Vaughn, but I am not guilty of that crime.  I am also accused of trying to rob Randall Bettis, but I am not guilty of that either.  I always tried to live honestly and the murder of aunt Betsy is the only crime I ever committed.  I say this in view of immediate death and it is all true.
W.M. Austin

Austin had been denying his guilt almost till the time of his execution even assuring his counsel, Mr. B.M. Burdett, he wasn't guilty.  When he was asked why he changed his mind and confessed he said "I was hoping for a reprieve from the Governor, but I have made peace with my Savior and do not wish one now."  Austin's brother Robert visited him the day before the execution to bid him good bye and it was the only time that William showed any emotion.  He burst into tears and asked the mercy from the Lord.  His parents sent him "affectionate remembrances" but did not visit him because it was too upsetting.  Friends and acquaintances stopped in to say good bye and shake his hand.

He wrote a final letter to his brother George exhorting him to shun bad company and never drink liquor.  He told George that whisky was the cause of his troubles and that he had been wild and desperate but that he now believed he was going home to rest in the arms of his Savior.

The hanging was scheduled for 1:45 pm.  At 12:45 he asked the ministers to pray and sing the Coronation song with him.  At 1:05 Sheriff Higginbotham read the death warrant and at one point could not make out a certain word and Austin leaned over to assist him. As he was going to the gallows he ran up the steps and "turning to smile at a man, who had unintentionally knocked his hat partly off."    At the gallows the 51st Psalm was read and a prayer was said by Rev. Peeples.  Sheriff Higginbotham was trying to shelter Austin as best he could because it was raining so hard.  At the end of the service, Austin was calm and addressed the crowd giving his confession and telling everyone to shun whisky and evil companions.  At the closing of his speech he bowed to the crowd, gave a last farewell and then shook hands with those on the scaffold.  According to the report it was a touching scene and even strong men were weeping.

William Austin walked to the trap and was pinioned without struggle.  The Sheriff adjusted the noose and placed the black hood over Austin's head.  At 1:22 the body of William Austin fell through the trap making one or two convulsive twitches at the shoulders.  "The wages of sin had been paid."  The surgeons kept check of Austin's pulse.  They pronounced him dead at 1:42 pm.  It took 20 minutes for Austin to die.  His body was cut down and given to his friends.  He was taken straightaway to Fork Church for burial, where he had been baptized when he was sixteen.

The newspaper reported that the rope was hand made by Vonderheide of Covington, KY, costing $10 but that it could've been sold for three times that amount.  The reporter went on to congratulate Sheriff Higginbotham on the excellence of his work even though some said Austin's neck was not broken it was "still the easiest death we ever witnessed."

Apparently owners of lots and houses near the gallows had charged people 50 cents to $1.50 to stand and watch the execution.  It was also reported there was a lot of drunkeness but no disturbances until just before the noose was adjusted on Austin someone yelled at the people on the scaffold to move because they were blocking his view and he had paid as much as the next person to see the show.  In conclusion it was noted that the crowd totally lacked any appreciation of the solemnity of the occasion and were treating it more like a circus and that even women held up their children so that they could see the execution as well.

W. P. Walton, editor of the Semi-Weekly Interior Journal, in his editorial said "While we think he was responsible and ought to have atoned for his sin, he was not as fully accountable as the average man.  The fact that he (Austin) kept his secret so inviolable till two hours of his death shows he had considerable will power, however, and his case is therefore the harder to understand."

I'm not convinced that William Austin's hanging had anything to do with Champ Shumate's cow but it makes for interesting reading!

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