The Hanged Man Who Refused To Die


In 1890, after the Ku Klux Klan was somewhat disrupted and driven under ground, another organization called the Whitecaps was formed in Mississippi to "put down criminality and petty thievery among the blacks."  The members swore in blood never to reveal its secrets. Unlike the KKK, the Whitecaps rarely used violence, but the scare tactics they used were enough to keep the African-Americans terrorized.

In 1893, for some infraction that has been lost to history, the Whitecaps in Marion County took physical action against an African-American employed as a servant by a member of the group. The man was severely flogged while his employer, Will Buckley, was out of town and had no knowledge of the group's action. When Buckley returned and discovered his servant had been flogged, he became enraged at the uncalled for violence and the secrecy with which it was carried out. He decided to reveal the whole affair to the authorities and expose the secrets of the Whitecaps at the next meeting of a Grand Jury. Buckley's intentions became known to the leaders of the Whitecaps so when the jury met, the Whitecappers were there to watch the moves of everyone who might testify against the organization. As a result of Buckley's evidence and testimony, an indictment was brought against the 3 Whitecap men who had carried out the flogging.

On his way home from the courthouse, accompanied by his brother Jim and the flogged man, all on horseback, Buckley was traveling down a secluded forest road. With Will Buckley in the lead, they were crossing a small stream when a man jumped out from the underbrush and fired a pistol at them. With a moan, Will swayed in his saddle and then fell to the ground dead. The other 2 men spurred their horses and even though the assassin emptied his gun firing at them, managed to escape unhurt.

A short distance down the trail on which Will was killed was the Purvis home. Although only 19, Will Purvis was rumored to be a member of the Whitecaps. Two days after the slaying, bloodhounds were taken to the place of the murder and with some coaxing, picked up a cold scent which led the handlers into a field near the frame house the Purvis family called home. A neighbor who owned land on both sides of the Purvis holdings had for years tried to buy them out, but the elder Purvis refused to sell. This neighbor confirmed to authorities that young Will was a member of the Whitecaps and he was almost positive it had been him who had shot Buckley. Desperate to make an arrest and solve the crime, Will was arrested and charged with murder.

The arrest threw citizens of the county into two camps. Buckley had been well liked, being known to be fair in his dealings with others and for helping folks in need, but Will Purvis was also well liked, having grown up there and known to be kind and hard-working. Many said it couldn't have been Will who carried out such a terrible deed; he was too kind and just didn't have it in him.  

At the trial, Jim Buckley, the state's key witness, testified that he and the servant had witnessed the killing of his brother. When asked if he could name the man who did the killing, he pointed his finger at Will Purvis and said, "That's him. That's the man who killed my brother." Even though several men of good character substantiated Purvis' alibi of being several miles away with them planning a group picnic at the time of the killing, Jim's testimony along with Will Purvis admitting he had joined the Whitecaps 3 weeks before the murder was enough for the jury to find him guilty. 

At the reading of the verdict, Purvis once again declared his innocence. At the request of his attorney, each member of the jury was asked how he voted and Will looked on in dismay as each one replied, "Guilty." As the last juror answered the same as the rest, Will said, "I am innocent of this crime. I swear, I will outlive everyone on the jury who has wrongly found me guilty." 

Following the law, Will was sentenced to die by hanging. His attorney appealed, but 6 months later, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the sentence. Several days following the Supreme Court's decision, Will was escorted under heavy guard to the gallows in Columbia. Five thousand people came to Columbia on horseback, in wagons, carts and buggies. When the appointed hour came, many in the crowd were crying as Will was led up to the scaffold. After the minister finished praying for his soul, the sheriff asked Will if he had any last words. The crowd was silent, expecting a final confession, but Will stated, "You are taking the life of an innocent man, but there are people here who know who did commit this crime. If they will come forward and confess, I will go free and an innocent man will be spared." Nobody came forward as the rope was placed around the boy's neck. The minister loudly proclaimed, "God save this innocent boy!" just as the trapdoor was sprung beneath Will's feet. Purvis dropped and then with a sharp jerk, the hangman's knot slipped and Will fell to the ground with no more injury than a slight rope burn around his neck.

Horror gripped the crowd as Will, his hands and feet still bound, stood up and looked around. Incredibly, he hopped up onto the first step of the scaffold, turned to the sheriff and said, "Let's have it over with." Many women in the crowd began screaming and crying even louder as some of the men began shouting it was divine intervention that had saved the young man. The sheriff said, "This man was sentenced to hang and hang he will" as he ordered the officials to prepare to hang him again. The doctor on hand refused to have anything more to do with the procedure. He had been known for expressing his feelings against the Whitecaps, but all along he had not believed Purvis was guilty. As the doctor prepared to walk away he said, "I will not have any part of this damn thing. This boy's been hung once too many times already."

When the doctor made his statement, many of the crowd cried, "Don't let him hang!" Others in the crowd were just as loud though as they shouted, "Hang him!" Suddenly, the Reverend held up his hands and as the shouts faded, all eyes turned to him. He shouted, "All who want to see this boy hanged a second time, hold up your hands." There was complete silence and only a few hands were raised. The Reverend then said in a quiet voice, "All who are opposed to hanging Will Purvis a second time, hold up your hands." Almost every hand went up. The crowd who had come to see life taken from a man now were virtually united in calling for his release.

The officials were unsure what to do. It was their duty to carry out the punishment, but how could they go ahead against the will of five thousand people staring at them? Once again the sheriff ordered the officials to prepare to hang Will again. At this, the doctor called out to the sheriff, "I do not agree with you. If I were to call for the help of 300 men to prevent the hanging, what would you do?" As shouts of agreement with the doctor rose from the men in the crowd, the sheriff realized that in such an event he would be helpless. The doctor then took several steps up the gallows and quietly said to the sheriff, "And I am ready to it it now." At this, the sheriff ordered the hanging to be stopped and the prisoner to be escorted back to jail.

The question of whether or not Will Purvis could be hanged again was taken to the State Supreme Court. The court decided that just because the noose had slipped was no reason the law should not be followed to completion. The court stated that Purvis had been found guilty, there was a witness against him and to free him or commute his sentence to life in prison would establish a dangerous precedent. His date of execution was set for July 31, 1895.

Indignation over the ruling of the court ran high with most people now believing Will was indeed innocent. During the night of July 30, 1895, the night before Will was to be hung a second time, there was strangely only one deputy standing guard  when a group of unidentified men stormed the jail, overpowered and tied up the deputy without harming him and whisked Will Purvis away. Several other prisoners were left in their cells and the deputy swore he could not identify any of Will's rescuers. Nobody was ever brought to trial for the jailbreak.

Will disappeared and the official search for him never amounted to much, but the case remained in the public eye so much that it was an issue in the next gubernatorial election. The candidate in favor of modifying the sentence won the election. The day after he was sworn in, Purvis voluntarily surrendered himself and, true to his word, the new governor commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. On March 12, 1896, Will began his sentence of hard labor, breaking rocks and clearing fields by hand.

Two years later, the state's key witness, Jim Buckley, the brother who had identified Purvis as the murderer, recanted his testimony and said in his grief and desire for revenge, he had identified Will because everyone thought that's who did it. Since Jim was the main reason Will had been convicted, a new trial was ordered and without an eye witness, a new verdict of Not Guilty was rendered. Will was released from prison and on December 19, 1898, after thousands of letters came into the governor's office requesting a pardon for Will, the governor issued the requested full pardon. 

In time, Will married his childhood sweetheart and they had 7 children. He became a prosperous farmer and life with his family was good, but there was still a cloud over his happiness as he had never completely been vindicated of the murder of Will Buckley.

In 1917, Joe Beard, a long-time resident of the community attended a rousing revival meeting of the Holy Rollers. The charismatic preacher emphasized the importance of the public confession of sins. Joe came forward to join the church and declared he had long been suffering from the weight of a terrible sin. He would say no more at that time, but a few months later he became seriously ill. When the doctor told him he should prepare to meet his maker, Beard called his minister and several friends to his bedside to hear his confession. He stated that in 1893, he was one of 4 Whitecaps who met in secret to discuss Will Buckley's intention of revealing to the Grand Jury the secrets of the Whitecaps organization. Three of them decided that Buckley should be killed to protect the guilty members. The fourth person was a young man of only 19 years who had just recently joined the Whitecaps and he flatly refused to have anything to do with such a dastardly thing. He promptly renounced his membership, quitting the group and returning home. That man was Will Purvis.

The three remaining men drew lots to see who would carry out the murder. Joe and a man named Louis Thornhill drew the short straws. The two men built a brush blind on the side of the creek by the trail they knew Buckley would take coming home from town. They laid in wait until the three intended victims came into sight. Beard said Thornhill jumped out and fired the shot that killed Buckley, but Beard, who was also supposed to jump out and begin firing, had lost his nerve and never moved from his hiding place in the brush. This had allowed Jim Buckley and the servant to escape. The reverend got a pencil and paper and began writing down his story, but before he could finish it and get Beard to sign it, Beard took his last breath and died.

Beard's confession completely cleared Purvis of the murder. In an ironic twist of fate, Thornhill, who was advanced in age but still alive, could not be brought to trial as the deathbed confession could not be used in court since it was not signed. Thornhill, who had years before moved to an isolated cabin in the woods, remained in his cabin, but was never seen in town again. A year later, his body was discovered on the floor of his cabin by a hunter. No cause was given for his death.

In 1920, the state of Mississippi appropriated $5,000 to Purvis as compensation "for suffering endured and for services done and performed in the State penitentiary under the provision of an erroneous judgement. The state of Mississippi confesses to a great wrong done to Will Purvis and now removes all stain and dishonor from his name."

On October 13, 1938, twenty-one years after his exoneration, Will Purvis died of natural causes - 3 days after the death of the last juror who had found him guilty.

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