Columbus Moffatt (Execution of)

Columbus William Moffatt (sometimes spelled as Moffat or Moffett) was hanged on April 24, 1885, in Dallas (Polk County) for the murder of a local farmer, a crime he denied to the last moments of his life. Sources differ as whether Moffatt was white or African American.

Bell Weehunt, a prominent local farmer, was working on his Polk County farm on June 17, 1882, when, as the Arkansas Democrat reported, J. B. Fowler and Columbus Moffatt “secreted themselves behind the fence and shot him through the heart while at work in the field” before going to his home and robbing his wife. The two were quickly apprehended, and Moffatt confessed that Fowler “worked on me for two weeks before I would consent to assist him,” finally agreeing to do the robbing if Fowler killed Weehunt.

Moffatt said that he went to the house and “took Mrs. Weehunt by the throat and, after some threats, made her give up the money—some $52.” Fowler denied any involvement and would show up in no further newspaper articles on the killing.

After narrowly escaping a lynching attempt, Moffatt, along with horse thief Bill Wilson, escaped from the jail at Dallas in August 1882. An Arkansas Gazette article described Moffatt as being about nineteen years old, five feet and seven or eight inches tall with a light build, light hair, blue eyes, “and very poorly clad.” He remained at large until being captured at Magnet Cove (Hot Spring County) on December 25, 1884, and taken to the Garland County jail at Hot Springs (Garland County), from which he again escaped on January 27, 1885. The Democrat reported that “Moffat [sic] is known as a daring desperado, but owing to the hot chase given him and to the fact that he had not armed himself his recapture was effected without a conflict.” He was again captured near Magnet Cove.

Moffatt was tried in Polk County Circuit Court in early 1885 and sentenced to death. Unfortunately, no account of his trial appears to exist, but a lurid Gazette article on his hanging claimed that, after killing Weehunt, Moffatt, “perpetrated a nameless crime on the person of the poor widowed mother in the presence of her screaming three little children, and robbed them of all the money left to him.” In the Gazette version, Weehunt’s wife had raced to the field after hearing a gunshot and, after finding her husband dead, ran home, at which time Moffatt broke in and threatened her, and “then it was that this worse than devil choked the hapless victim and outraged her.” None of the earlier accounts of the crime made any allegations of rape.

Oddly, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat called him a “Negro fiend,” and the Gazette article’s headline called him “The Negro William Moffatt,” with the correspondent describing him (using racist, sensationalist language of the time) as a “heavy set, short specimen of humanity in the lineaments of whose bull-dog face ignorance, coarseness, sensuality, and disgusting brutality appeared as plainly pictured as perhaps there was ever reflected from the face of any human gorilla”—a far cry from the slight, fair youth described when he escaped from the Polk County jail.

As many as 3,000 people attended Moffatt’s execution on April 24, 1884, at Dallas, and “the doomed man maintained his innocence to the last, and the nerve with which he met his fate was remarkable. He faced death without a tremor.” Moffatt’s was the only legal execution conducted in Polk County in the nineteenth century.

For additional information:
Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Western Arkansas. Chicago: Goodspeed Publishing Co., 1891.

“Execution in Arkansas.” Vicksburg [Mississippi] Evening Post, April 24, 1885, p. 1.

“Out of Jail.” Arkansas Gazette, August 26, 1882, p. 4.

“Pleading Innocence.” Arkansas Gazette, April 25, 1885, p. 3.

“Polk County.” Arkansas Democrat, June 29, 1882, p. 3.

“Re-Captured.” Arkansas Democrat, January 29, 1885, p. 3.

“Taking the Penalty.” St. Louis [Missouri] Globe-Democrat, April 25, 1885, p. 5.

Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System


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