Abe Chambers (Execution of)

Abe Chambers was hanged at Newport (Jackson County) on January 21, 1887, for the murder of a young African American man, a crime he denied having committed.

Abe Chambers, “a negro of herculean frame,” came to Newport in late October 1886 as part of a traveling circus troupe; different accounts say that eighteen-year-old Jonas Williams either also came with the circus or that he lived in Jackson County, though he does not appear in the 1880 census there.

The two men were constant companions for several days before leaving Newport. Again, accounts of what happened differ, with the Arkansas Gazette reporting that the town marshal was notified of a young man in distress in the White River bottoms and found Williams dying, while a Galveston, Texas, paper stated that the youth was found “a few days later…with the head crushed in a most frightful manner.” Some newspapers held that Chambers was soon arrested gambling in a saloon while in possession of some of Williams’s belongings, while the Galveston paper said Chambers was captured by a posse and expressed surprise at news of the killing. The first reports of his arrest appear in mid-November.

Chambers was tried on November 29, 1886, and a Jackson County circuit court jury convicted him of first-degree murder. The Gazette reported that “the evidence was purely circumstantial, and the general opinion is that the jury rendered a just and correct verdict,” adding that “if he is not so fortunate as to escape, Jackson County will have another necktie-party shortly.”

He was sentenced on December 22, 1886, to be executed on January 21, 1887. Chambers’s attorneys made an unsuccessful appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court to have the verdict overturned.

Chambers “held out to the last moment, believing that something would occur to prevent his execution,” but told a Kentucky reporter that “if die I must, then I will try and leave the word, not like a coward, but as a brave man faces a foe.” He also told the newsman that “if I had been any other color but black the verdict would have been different,” and that the judge and jury who convicted him “will suffer for it in the world to come.”

A crowd estimated at from 1,000 to 3,000 people of “all ages, sizes, sexes and colors” gathered at the execution site on January 21, 1887, where the Gazette reported that the rope on the gallows was “the legal instrument of three executions,” having previously been used to hang Robert Lancaster in Independence County in 1879, Joe Kemp in Sharp County in 1879, and Jerry Blalock in Jackson County in 1883.

While the Gazette claimed that Chambers confessed to a pair of other inmates on the night before his death, the condemned man apparently never wavered in his claim of innocence. He was taken from the Jackson County jail at noon on January 21 and was photographed on the scaffold with the rope around his neck and a bouquet of flowers in his hand. “The only indication of his terrible feelings was the nervous movement of his hands when the cap was put on his head,” the Gazette reported. When the trap door was sprung, “his neck was broken by the fall and life was extinct after some ten minutes had elapsed.”

For additional information:
“An Arkansas Execution.” Galveston [Texas] Daily News, January 22, 1887, p. 6.

“Arkansas News.” Russellville Democrat, December 22, 1886, p. 1.

“Chambers Hanged.” Arkansas Gazette, January 22, 1887, p. 1.

“The Gallows.” [Louisville, Kentucky] Courier-Journal, January 22, 1887, p. 2.

“Miscellaneous Items.” Osceola Times, November 13, 1886, p. 2.

“Newport.” Arkansas Gazette, November 30, 1886, p. 3.

Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System


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