Henry Burnett (Execution of)

Henry Burnett was a young African American man hanged near Lonoke (Lonoke County) on August 27, 1885, for the axe murder of an acquaintance.

In the 1880 federal census, Henry Burnett was a twelve-year-old classified as a “mulatto” living in Lonoke County’s Tollette Township with his father, farmer laborer William Burnett, mother Cologne, and three siblings. One of their neighbors was laborer Nelson Anderson, twenty-nine, who lived in the same township with his wife Lizzie and two daughters. Henry Burnett was later described as “slight with somewhat pleasant features,” though “his temper was fierce and ungovernable.”

In mid-February 1885, Henry Burnett (then eighteen), Willis Butler, and Anderson traveled five miles to Carlisle (Lonoke County) to conduct some business, with Anderson walking while the other two rode in a wagon. Instead of waiting on Butler and Burnett, Anderson later drove the wagon home, leaving the pair to walk back.

Burnett confronted Anderson at the home of Nelson McNeil that evening. He then walked out and returned, “sending his axe crushing into his skull.” Anderson died of the injuries.

Burnett fled into the woods but surrendered to authorities shortly afterward, later saying that “someone told me if I did that I would get off.” He was instead tried and convicted on July 15, 1885, of first-degree murder, with the Arkansas Gazette stating with considerable hyperbole that “it was probably as diabolical a murder as the annals of crime furnish.” He was sentenced to hang on August 27, 1885.

Transported to the state penitentiary in Little Rock (Pulaski County) for safekeeping, Burnett was visited by several reporters, telling a Gazette correspondent, “I didn’t intend to do what I did,” while stating to a St. Louis reporter that “I am sure the devil made me do it,” though a preacher told him “whenever my neck was broken…I then belonged to the Lord and…He would…take me home to Heaven.”

Burnett was taken to the Lonoke County jail, from which he was transported around 2:00 p.m. on August 27 to the execution site outside of town, where around 4,000 people had gathered. The Arkansas Democrat reported that “much difficulty was experienced in getting the doomed man to stand on the trapdoor and he had to be re-pinioned with a larger rope,” while a Texas paper wrote that “he trembled violently and had to be supported.” The Associated Press published a garish account saying Burnett’s “struggles became so violent that he broke his pinions and fell through the trap, carrying a deputy sheriff with him.” While the Associated Press said that “the struggle for life occupied thirty minutes, and produced a most horrible spectacle,” the Democrat reporter stated that the trap door was opened at 2:15 p.m., “and his soul was launched into eternity.”

For additional information:
“A Demon’s End.” St. Louis [Missouri] Post-Dispatch, August 27, 1885, p. 1.

“Didn’t Mean to Do It.” Arkansas Gazette, August 15, 1885, p. 4.

“Hanged at Lonoke, Ark.” Galveston [Texas] Daily News, August 28, 1885, p. 3.

“Henry Burnett.” Arkansas Democrat, August 27, 1885, p. 3.

“Lonoke.” Arkansas Gazette, July 16, 1885, p. 1.

“State News.” Arkansas Democrat, July 29, 1885, p. 1.

“State News.” Arkansas Gazette, March 5, 1885, p. 6.

Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System


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