Johnson County Executions of 1883
Four men were hanged together on June 22, 1883, in Clarksville (Johnson County) for a botched train robbery in which the train conductor was shot to death.
Thirty-six-year-old Gove Johnson, a Civil War veteran who had served in the Union army’s Ninth Kentucky Infantry Regiment, plotted to rob a Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad train, planning to “stop the train, terrify the passengers, and rob the express car, in which they had learned there was to be a large amount of money.” He recruited his teenage cousin James Johnson, along with twenty-eight-year-old James Herndon and thirty-three-year-old Monroe McDonald, to participate in the crime. As the time for the robbery neared, though, Herndon and McDonald had second thoughts but stayed with the gang for fear of being killed by Gove Johnson.
On March 7, 1883, the four men boarded the train at Mulberry (Crawford County). As it went through Franklin County, the Johnsons pulled guns on conductor John Cain. Herndon fired a shot into the rail car’s ceiling “to ‘flustrate’ the passengers,” and chaos ensued. Either James Johnson or James Herndon shot and killed Cain, and as gunfire roared through the car, the younger Johnson shot a brakeman; he also shot McDonald in the face while another bullet hit his arm.
Herndon helped the wounded McDonald off the train, and when the gang saw he was too badly injured to escape he was told to “play passenger, which he did to perfection.” The other three men fled into the Boston Mountains. The Johnsons were captured a few weeks later in Washington County, while Herndon was arrested in Madison County on March 21. The recuperating McDonald confessed his role in the crime on March 16.
A special term of the Franklin County Circuit Court was convened on April 17 to consider charging the four men, but their lawyers won a change of venue to Johnson County. In a series of trials, Herndon was convicted of first-degree murder on May 9, as were the Johnsons on May 10 and McDonald on May 11, 1883. A judge sentenced the four on May 15, saying they would all be hanged together on June 22, 1883. They were transported to the state penitentiary in Little Rock (Pulaski County) for their own safety.
As the condemned men were being transported to Clarksville on June 21 for their execution, crowds gathered at railroad depots to watch them pass by, and a crowd of around 5,000 was anticipated at the hanging. The Arkansas Gazette reported that “all expressed sorrow for what had occurred, and talked of their coming death without apparent fear.”
The four were taken by wagon to the gallows, which had been erected west of town near the railroad tracks, and “the ground was crowded with people; trees were filled with men and boys from their roots to their topmost branches.” They climbed the steps of the scaffold at 12:17 p.m. on June 22, 1883.
Gove Johnson addressed the crowd, saying, “[Y]oung men, take warning from this scene. I have no more to say.” James Johnson proclaimed that “if I killed anyone it was unintentional,” while Herndon said, “I told the truth when I said I did not shoot Cain. If I killed him, I do not know it.” McDonald said, “I never shot Conductor Cain; my conscience is clear of that.”
The trap door opened at 12:37 p.m., and the four fell through. “Gove alone of all the four made a move after the trigger was sprung,” a Gazette correspondent wrote, “and for several minutes he drew long, deep breaths, dying very hard. The others were gone the minute they fell.”
For additional information:
Arkansas Democrat, May 11, 1883, p. 3, col. 2.
Arkansas Democrat, May 12, 1883, p. 3, col. 2.
“Cain’s Murderers.” Arkansas Gazette, June 23, 1883, p. 4–5.
“The Confession.” Arkansas Gazette, March 22, 1883, p. 1.
“Farewell.” Arkansas Democrat, June 21, 1883, p. 1.
“Herndon Captured.” Arkansas Gazette, March 22, 1883, p. 1.
“Nearing the Scaffold.” Arkansas Gazette, June 22, 1883, p. 1.
“One of the Mulberry Train Robbers Convicted of Murder.” Fayetteville Weekly Democrat, May 17, 1883, p. 1.
“The Train Robbers.” Arkansas Democrat, May 29, 1883, p. 1.
“An Ugly Quartette.” Arkansas Gazette, March 23, 1883, p. 1.
“Was There Undue Haste?” Arkansas Democrat, June 16, 1883, p. 2.
“We Are Ready.” Arkansas Democrat, June 21, 1883, p. 1.
Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System
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