Beard v. State (1906)

In 1906 and 1907, a notable case made its way through the courts. An African-American man named Govan Beard was convicted and sentenced to death for assaulting a white woman in Phillips County. When the Arkansas Supreme Court twice denied his appeal, and Governor Jeff Davis refused to pardon Beard even though the alleged victim recanted her claims, the case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Govan Beard is most likely the one-year-old boy listed as Eaton Govan Beard in the 1880 census. At that time, he was living in Helena (Phillips County) with his mother, Chana Beard, and four siblings (Peter, George, Mary, and Walter). By 1900, Govan was still living in Helena with his mother and his four siblings, and also his stepfather, brick mason Morocco Smith.

According to newspaper accounts, Govan Beard, who was working as a barber, and a white woman named Annie Hartley (a.k.a. Annie McCable) had sexual relations, but when they met for a tryst at a “bawdy house” in Helena on December 22, 1905, Beard ended the relationship. In retaliation, according to the Colorado Statesman, “she being a white woman and knowing the feeling that exists between the races, took advantage of the situation and made an alarm.”

Beard was arrested for rape and appeared before a hastily called special session of the circuit court on January 4, 1906. At this one-day session, he was indicted, tried, and sentenced to be hanged on February 9. Although his lawyer did not file any objection to the indictment or the proceedings or ask for a new trial, the clerk of the state Supreme Court issued a writ of error on the basis that the prosecution failed to inform the defense of the indictment forty-eight hours in advance, that the hasty trial left the defense with no opportunity to gather evidence or present witnesses, and that the indictment itself had been improperly worded. According to the Richmond Times Dispatch and several other newspapers across the country, on February 4, the Supreme Court, having been informed of the danger of mob violence if the execution was not carried out as planned, told the Phillips County sheriff to issue a warning that “any person attempting to lynch Goven Beard, a prisoner, pending a hearing of the case in the Supreme Court will be subject to summary arrest and punishment for contempt.”

Beard’s case was first heard before the Arkansas Supreme Court on June 4, 1906. After considering the alleged errors in the case, the Supreme Court upheld the circuit court, and Beard’s execution was scheduled for July 18. According to the Arkansas Gazette, on July 15 Annie Hartley made a public confession that she had lied about Beard having assaulted her, and that she had gone willingly to see him at what she knew was an “assignation house.” Attempts were made to secure a pardon from Governor Jeff Davis, but he declined to intervene. Beard’s lawyers then filed a motion for a stay of execution, which was denied on July 24, and another execution was scheduled for August 1. On July 28, 1906, Beard’s case was referred to the U.S. Supreme Court, staying the execution. According to the Gazette, the Court would not convene until October 1906, and a decision would not come down until at least six to eight months after that.

On September 29, 1906, the St. Paul Appeal, a prominent African-American newspaper founded by Frederick Douglass, described the details of Beard’s case, calling Hartley a woman “of the vilest character…deserted by two living husbands.” The newspaper noted that after Hartley confessed to lying, “many prominent citizens of Arkansas used every effort to induce Gov. Jeff Davis to grant Beard a reprieve, but Gov. Davis positively refused to interfere in any way.” Commenting on the circumstances of the case, the Appeal noted, “It is easy to infer that this is not an isolated case, and that many cases of lynching have been brought about by just such circumstances. It is the fashion to deny that illicit relations between white women and Afro-American men ever exist, especially in the South; but it is not easy to prove any such assertion. No one supposes that racial prejudice prevents illicit relations between white men and Afro-American women, and it is certain that many such cases as that of Govan Beard do occur.”

By June 1907, Beard’s case had still not been heard at the U.S. Supreme Court, and acting Arkansas governor Xenophon Pindall was being pressured to issue a pardon. According to the Green Forest Tribune, however, Pindall was delaying any decision until he had ascertained “what influences, if any, were used to induce the Hartley woman to make the statement that she had falsely accused Beard of the crime for which he was convicted.” He apparently never pardoned Beard, and shortly before his case was to be heard at the U.S. Supreme Court, Govan Beard died of tuberculosis in prison in Marianna (Lee County). Due to his death on October 14, 1907, the Court abated his case.

For additional information:
“An Arkansas Assault.” The Appeal (St. Paul, Minnesota), September 29, 1906, p. 2.

“Beard Case Goes to Federal Court.” Arkansas Gazette, July 29, 1906, p. 8.

“Beard Pardon under Consideration.” Green Forest Tribune, June 7, 1907, p. 4.

“Beard v. State.” Arkansas Supreme Court. Cases Determined in the Supreme Court of Arkansas, Vol. 79. Press Printing Company, 1907.

“Death Case Ends.” Log Cabin Democrat, October 31, 1907, p. 2.

“False Alarm.” Colorado Statesman, July 28, 1906, p. 1.

“Will Arrest All Who Interfere with Officers.” Richmond Times Dispatch, February 5, 1906, p. 9.

Nancy Snell Griffith
Davidson, North Carolina


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