Jacob Levels (Execution of)

Jacob Levels was an African American man hanged in Little Rock (Pulaski County) on June 21, 1878, for murdering another Black man the previous year.

Jacob Levels was a single man, and Robert Swan’s wife cooked for him. On June 8, 1877, Swan “quarreled with his wife concerning her intimacy with Levels.” When Levels spoke up for the wife, Swan cut his cheek with a pocketknife. Levels went for a shotgun, but Swan fled.

Two days later, Swan went to Levels’s house with another man and attempted to apologize, without success. On June 12, Swan went into Little Rock (he presumably lived outside the city) and told an acquaintance that he and Levels had reconciled, but that evening Levels went to a friend’s house and asked to borrow a shotgun “to shoot some rabbits.” Instead, he approached Swan, who was planting vegetables, and fired both barrels at close range. Swan attempted to flee, but Levels grabbed the hoe that Swan had been using, “knocked him down and broke the handle in several pieces over his head.”

A nearby farmer took the mortally wounded Swan to his house “and with difficulty prevented Levels from stamping upon the body of the dying man.” Levels rode into Little Rock and confessed to the killing; a coroner’s jury charged him with second-degree murder.

Levels was tried in mid-November 1877, and the jury convicted him of first-degree murder. Governor William Read Miller set the execution date for June 21, 1878, after several appeals failed.

Levels reportedly slept well the night before his death and “ate quite heartily at breakfast” as a crowd gathered outside the Pulaski County jail yard. Though 175 tickets had been given to witness the execution to those who “knew the ropes,” most people were kept outside, though “some ladies occupied the roof of an adjacent house” so they could watch the execution.

The condemned man had converted to the Catholic faith during his confinement and received last rites at 11:05 a.m. before being dressed in “the sable uniform of the gallows” and led to the execution site. An Arkansas Gazette correspondent wrote that “we have witnessed several executions, but can not remember that we ever saw more unflinching nerve, with an utter absence of all bravado, than was exhibited by Levels in his last moments.” When asked if he had any last words, Levels said: “Only one thing. Prepare to meet me in glory.”

The trap door was opened at 11:16, and “the crowd who had been loitering in the vicinity were admitted, and were allowed to gratify their curiosity by witnessing the closing scenes.” The Gazette reporter wrote that “for eight minutes the chest heaved convulsively, but there was no struggling,” though another newspaper claimed that “his gasps and struggling for breath were painfully audible. His shoulders and chest underwent convulsions.” A doctor checked Levels after thirteen minutes, “and life still remained,” but after twenty-two minutes his body was cut down and given to friends for burial in the Fletcher cemetery eight miles south of Little Rock.

For additional information:
“Circuit Court.” Arkansas Gazette, November 17, 1877, p. 4.

“A Dusky Dangler.” Arkansas Gazette, June 22, 1878, p. 4.

“Hanged by the Neck.” Arkansas Gazette, June 2, 1878, p. 4.

“Six Traps Sprung.” Memphis Daily Appeal, June 22, 1878, p. 1.

Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System


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