THE PRESSWOOD HANGING
The following is taken from HERITAGE, Published by The SMITHVILLE REVIEW, December, 1987, Recapping some of the most remembered happenings in Dekalb County History. The article is quite long so I have broken it down into sections.
This is being published with the permission of The SMITHVILLE REVIEW.
One minute to Live
Grabbed Her Arms
No Ill Feeling
Transcribed and coded by Athol K. Foster
(EDITORS NOTE: This is an actual account of Dekalb County's last legal hanging as told by eye witnesses together with a complete copy of the murderer's confession. This article was reprinted from the SMITHVILLE REVIEW and the Alexandria times, with fu
rther notes by Dekalb County Historian Thomas G. Webb.)
ONE MINUTE TO LIVE
The morning of May 24, 1872, dawned bright and clear and from a tiny hole in the door of his cell John Presswood, Jr. saw the last sunrise he was destined to see on this earth.
For this was the day--the day he was destined to pay the supreme penalty for the brutal death of Mrs. Jim Billings.
Only the day before he was baptized in Town Creek where Colvert's Mill now stands by the Rev. Green Magness, Primitive Baptist Minister from Old Bildad. The Rev. Magness along with several guards took Presswood to the creek and he was led into the wa
ter while the guards held a rope tied tightly around his leg. As he returned to his dismal cell he was thoroughly convinced that he had been forgiven for his crime.
On this lovely May morning Presswood arose from the floor after a sleepless night, shifted his leg which was secured to the jail wall with a chain, and prepared for his last appearance on earth.
Just before noon Jailor G. W. Cameron opened the double door to Presswood's cell, unlocked the chain which bound him to the wall, and led him to a jersey (a one-horse wagon) which was waiting in front of the jail.
Inside the wagon was a coffin which had been purchased by Presswood's father and when Presswood sat on the jersey he sat upon the coffin.
The largest crowd ever assembled in Smithville at the time, estimated at least 8,000, stood in awed silence as the wagon stopped in front of the scaffold which had been built in front of the Webb House, fronting the Public Square.
Presswood dismounted, walked up the short flight of steps and stood looking over the huge crowd- probably the greatest number of people he had seen in all his 17 years.
The Rev. Jerry W. Cullom, then 27, preached Presswood's funeral. His theme was, "Look what's happened to him and take warning."
Three small children were witnesses that day. The Smith sisters, Josie (Mrs. Josie Martin) and Mandy (Mrs. F. Z. Webb) and 11-year-old Brown Foster. Young Foster was the grandson of Jailor Cameron and through this connection and the fact that he was
small for his age, he commanded a ringside spot for the hanging. "Just 15 feet from where he dropped." The young Smith sisters had a choice spot on the second floor porch of the Webb House.
Hucksters passed in and out of the crowd selling Presswood's confession at 25 cents per copy. The were going like hot cakes until T. N. Christian read the confession from atop the scaffold and no one wanted one then--they knew what it contained. The
story goes that several hucksters got pretty angry at Christian for spoiling a good day's sales for them.
Immediately following the sermon and reading of the confession, Sheriff Henry Blackburn put a hood over Presswood's head, attached the rope tightly and stood back.
With his hand on the trip bar, he intoned, "Presswood, you have five minutes to Live."
The crowd surged forward, and then relaxed.
Again Sheriff Blackburn said, "Presswood, you have four minutes to live.
Beside the lonely figure in the hood, Sheriff Blackburn stood out in sharp contrast. He was a handsome figure, tall, well proportioned and filled with the dignity of his office. He was "High Sheriff" of Dekalb County.
After seemingly hours Sheriff Blackburn announced, "Presswood, you have three minutes to live.
Occasionally a sob as if a heart were being torn from a body was heard, but there was no outburst from the crowd. The stillness of the May morning was again broken by the commanding voice of Sheriff Blackburn, "Presswood, you have two minutes to live
By now several persons in the crowd, no doubt from a pang of conscience, were shifting from one foot to another. Neighbors look guilty at neighbors and the calmest man of all was Sheriff Blackburn as he announced, "Presswood, you have one minute to l
Brave members of the crowd gazed intently, wonderingly as the still form with the hood on his head stood torically on the scaffold just a few feet above their heads.
Suddenly Sheriff Blackburn shouted, "Presswood, you die" and sprung the trap. The body jerked at the end of the rope, quivered slightly, and was still.
Dekalb County had had its second and last legal hanging. Society was paid in full for a heinous crime.
(The REVIEW is indebted to Mrs. Josie Martin and Mr. Brown Foster for the vivid eye-witness account of the hanging of John Presswood, Jr., May 24, 1872.)
The crime for which young John Presswood died was the killing of Rachel Fowler Billings, which occurred a year and a half earlier, when John Presswood was only 16 years old. At Presswood's request, James M. Allen and Thomas N. Christian went to the j
ail and wrote down his full confession just five days before he was hanged. The complete confession follows as printed in the SMITHVILLE REVIEW of May 20 and May 27, 1948, having been reprinted from the Alexandria Times of Sept. 22, 1909.
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