John Billy (Execution of)

On April 3, 1874, a Choctaw man named John Billy was executed at Fort Smith (Sebastian County) for the murder of a deputy marshal named Perry Duvall the previous November. Little is known about fifty-five-year-old Billy, but according to historian Jerry Akins, newspapers of the time said he had “a cunning and forbidding countenance” and “a long history as a bad character in this area.”

Sources indicate that John Billy had been arrested for assault for trying to kill a man named William Mason. On November 14, the Memphis Daily Appeal published a November 3 letter from John A. Smith, previously published in the Fort Smith Herald. According to the letter, on November 2, 1873, U.S. marshals William Ayres (sometimes referred to as Ayers), Perry Duvall, J. C. Wilkerson (sometimes identified as Wilkinson), and Ed Grayson stopped at the Creek Agency while they were taking four prisoners to jail. Among these was John Billy. Billy was chained to a marshal and several other prisoners for the night, but after everyone was asleep, he slipped his irons, took Duvall’s gun, and shot Duvall fatally in the head. He then shot Ayres in the hand and chest as he slept. Wilkerson was sleeping with Grayson at the end of the room. When he heard the shooting, Wilkerson started to get up, whereupon Billy shot him in the back. Ayres then seized the prisoner, and there was a scuffle. The fourth guard then shot Billy in the head and body. Billy’s wounds were thought to be fatal, but they were not. The writer of the letter opined that “the Indian country don’t grow more healthy for United States marshals than it has been heretofore.”

John Billy was tried and found guilty in the United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas on December 19, 1873, and in January 1874 he was sentenced to hang with John Pointer and Isaac Filmore on April 3. Executioner George Maledon later told the Arkansas Gazette that Billy “displayed more feeling than any Indian I ever saw, and was so troublesome that it became necessary to chain him to a post in a room over the court-house. He would beg me to shoot him every time I went about him.”

The execution took place before thousands of people. Reports indicate that Billy confessed on the scaffold, admitting that he had been “a very bad man.” He was hoping for forgiveness, even though he described himself as unworthy of it. Akins notes that Billy “remained unmoved and showed no signs of weakness,” although at one time he “grinned horribly at the dangling rope.”

For additional information:
Akins, Jerry. “Hangin’ Times in Fort Smith.” Journal of the Fort Smith Historical Society 25 (September 2001): 7–15. Online at (accessed February 20, 2024).

“Executed Fifty-Two Men.” Arkansas Gazette, September 28, 1887, p. 1.

Riley, Michael Owen. “Capital Punishment in Oklahoma, 1835–1966.” PhD diss., University of Arkansas, 2012.

Untitled. Memphis Daily Appeal, November 14, 1873. Online at (accessed February 20, 2024).

Nancy Snell Griffith
Davidson, North Carolina


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