Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Last Hanging in Arkansas

Up the road from Paris, still no passport needed...
Second stop on my spur-of-the-moment excursion was Ozark Arkansas, founded in 1836, and named for its location on the northern bend of the Arkansas River. (The name is taken from the French words Aux Arc, meaning “at the bend”.)  Speaking of the Arkansas River, a drive across the bridge is not to be missed!
Though the Chamber of Commerce/Visitor Bureau was closed, the friendly young ladies at Daylight Donuts on the square right across from the Franklin County Courthouse provided me with a guide to points of interest and even called someone to be sure the museum (located in the old railroad depot) would be open for visitors!
Gray stones on a gray day...
One of the historic buildings which caught my eye was the old jail built in 1914 from locally-quarried stone on the bank of the Arkansas River. On a grayish day, it seemed foreboding in its deserted state, and I heard whispers of “Story…story…story…” The shingle still hanging above the arched entrance bears the name of a lawyer. I found it somewhat odd that a legal practice would be housed in an old jail! Apparently he has moved to other digs now.

And the story emerges...
Inside the museum, I found a great collection speaking to the town’s history and people. One picture caught my eye, and the man who was shepherding me around the small building took it out of the glass case so I could photograph it without a glare. (The key is an original cell key from the era.)
“Story…story…story..” I heard repeated.

More research tells the story of the photograph showing a prisoner being escorted to the gallows not quite hidden behind the tall fence on the left. It’s an historic snap since the prisoner was a man named Arthur Tillman convicted of killing his young girlfriend Amanda Stevens in 1914 and concealing her body in a well. (Here’s the full story.) His execution by hanging was the last in Arkansas due to the coming of the electric chair in Little Rock.
Though the picture is of the jail in Paris (Logan County) where the drama unfolded, the whispered story…story…story… inspired me to write the beginning of a novella as yet untitled.

The beginning...
Against dark angry skies, the stone fortress seemed angry, too, exuding an aura of evil. Below the sloping riverbank behind it, an icy wind whipped the blue-black water into a frenzy of furious whitecaps, almost like skeletal fingers reaching out to grasp the ghosts of those unfortunates who had spent their last days behind those stone walls.
The wooden doors with their tarnished brass studs appeared to swing open before me, and I pictured the woman on the threshold of death. The fence of weathered gray planks didn’t quite hide the top of the gallows…the gallows waiting for Serafina Cook that drizzly morning  just nine days before Christmas in 1910.
My mother, deaf from birth, hadn’t heard the snap of the rope, but she’d watched in silent horror as Serafina’s body struggled against the inevitable. No one knew the six-year-old had hidden herself away in the uncleared brush inside the eight-foot wall surrounding the grisly platform of death. No one cared about Pearl, the throwback, the afflicted, the dummy, the baby who should never have been born.
My pearl of great price, her mother had mouthed to her, often several times a day. Serafina had loved Pearl more than her own life. She’d given her life to protect her when she’d grabbed the revolver from the parlor table and pumped five bullets into her husband’s chest.
He’d stood there looking only slightly surprised as blood began to seep through the starched blue shirt which Serafina had just pressed to perfection with irons hot from the wood stove. The wide leather belt in his hand--his soft hand which held nothing more than a pen, the tool of his trade at the bank--remained raised in the air almost until he fell forward across the expensive carpet, staining it beyond salvage.
Pearl had seen that, too, and felt the vibration of the air each time her mother fired. Cowering behind the mauve velvet settee, she felt no horror, only a great relief which lasted for a whole hour, the time she and her mother sat on the floor holding each other tightly, until the sheriff had burst through the door and taken Serafina away.

Does a title come to mind?
Leave a comment with your suggestion.

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