David Akles (Execution of)

On July 17, 1885, an African American man named David Akles (sometimes referred to as Ackles) was hanged in Helena (Phillips County) for allegedly murdering a Black farmer named Frank Burrell and his companion. Akles was originally from Mississippi, but public records there reveal no identifying information. Frank Burrell may have been the Frank Burrill, who was listed on the 1870 census as twelve years old and living in Helena with his parents Israel and Clara Burrill.

According to the Arkansas Gazette, on the night of January 29, a Black couple named Frank Burrell and Scilla Flanagan, who were living as husband and wife, were bludgeoned to death with an axe and their house set on fire to conceal the crime. At 2:30 on the morning of January 30, a Black man rode into Helena acting strangely. When questioned by officers Monroe and Washington, he said that he had been working on a farm about ten miles outside of Helena and was returning to his home in Mississippi. They told him where he could stable his horse for the night but kept an eye on him.

The following morning, when he attempted to board the ferry without the horse, they saw him and arrested him. Around 10:00 that morning, a group of Black men from the Wakefield plantation came into Helena looking for a man named Dave Akles who had reportedly murdered Burrell and Flanagan. When Akles was brought out to meet the men, he confessed to the crime. He was taken before a justice of the peace, who had him jailed pending a preliminary investigation.

When a reporter went to the jail, Akles told him that he had been living with Burrell for three weeks but wanted to go home and lacked the money to do so. He discussed the situation with King Jackson, another African American who was living on the neighboring Task place. According to Akles, Jackson offered to kill Burrell and give any money they found to Akles, who could then flee. Suspicion would fall on Akles, and Jackson would not be suspected. At 10:00 p.m. on the night of the murder, Akles and Jackson, who was carrying an axe, entered Burrell’s house. According to Akles, however, he thought about the matter and decided that “the crime we were about to commit was too big.” Despite Akles’s protests, Jackson hit Burrell and Flanagan with the axe, killing them. A search of the house revealed only $1.20 in cash, which Akles took along with Burrell’s clothes. Jackson then set the house on fire to cover up the crime. The reporter noted that Akles “talks without any emotion about the horrible crime.”

A posse was sent out after Jackson, and it was feared that local African Americans would attempt to lynch Akles. By January 31, Jackson had been apprehended. He proclaimed his innocence, saying that he could “prove an alibi, and that he never spoke a dozen words to the negro Akles in his life.” According to the February 1 edition of the Arkansas Gazette, that same day Akles changed his statement, saying that he alone committed the crime and that Jackson had no part in it.

Akles was tried in Phillips County in May 1885 and, according to the May 28 edition of the Arkansas Gazette, was convicted of murder in the first degree. His execution was set for July 17. On July 18, the Gazette reported on the hanging, noting that Akles had asked to see Burrell’s parents, and that just before he left his cell, he met with them. He asked their forgiveness, saying he was sorry for what he did and felt “that his chances of going to heaven would be much brighter if they would make peace with him, which they did.” According to the Hoosier State Chronicle, the hanging was quite the spectacle, “the occasion of running excursion trains into Helena, and fully 6,000 people witnessed the execution.” As he was about to die, Akles reportedly said, “My congregation, I am here to-day to be hanged for the crime I have done, and I am perfectly willing to go.” A paper in Milledgeville, Georgia, had the final say on the matter, stating, “We occasionally publish some of these executions as a warning to the colored people of the fate which awaits those who commit these dreadful crimes.”

For additional information:
“Brained with an Axe.” Arkansas Gazette, January 31, 1885, p. 1.

“Double Murderer Hanged.” Hoosier State Chronicle (Indianapolis, Indiana), July 22, 1885, p. 8.

“Editorial Glimpses.” Union and Recorder (Milledgeville, Georgia), July 28, 1885, p. 2.

“The Gallows.” Arkansas Gazette, July 18, 1885, p. 1.

“Helena.” Arkansas Gazette, February 1, 1885, p. 1.

Untitled. Arkansas Gazette, May 28, 1885, p. 4.

Nancy Snell Griffith
Davidson, North Carolina


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