Joseph Kemp (Execution of)

Joseph (Joe) Kemp was hanged at Evening Shade (Sharp County) on October 3, 1879, for fatally wounding a man ten years earlier at Oil Trough (Independence County).

Joe Kemp was born in Wayne County, Tennessee, in October 1854, and he later moved to Arkansas, settling in Oil Trough bottoms in Independence County in 1868. There, he became the close companion of his cousin Jesse Dowdy. Dowdy had ongoing problems with neighbor Marion D. Hulsey because he was “in the habit of dogging Hulsey’s stock, catching his hogs and cutting their hamstring.” Hulsey, in turn, was seeking Dowdy’s arrest for harming his livestock.

Dowdy determined to see Hulsey dead and enlisted Kemp’s assistance in killing him. On the evening of July 31, 1869, the two rode up to Hulsey’s house, where they “found him in shirtsleeves and unarmed.” Kemp, who had been drinking, pulled a pistol and shot twice as Dowdy watched. Hulsey lived long enough to make a statement that Kemp’s first bullet “struck me in the left shoulder and knocked me down instantly,” adding that he and the fifteen-year-old Kemp had always been on friendly terms.

Authorities trailed Kemp and Dowdy to Texas, where they lost track of them. Dowdy was captured in San Saba, Texas, in September 1877 and returned to Batesville (Independence County). After getting a change of venue to Stone County, Dowdy was acquitted of complicity in Hulsey’s murder, which was “a shock to every fair-minded man present at the trial,” since evidence showed that he had planned the killing.

Arkansas authorities learned that Kemp was in jail in Texas under the name Jack Mitchell for stealing horses or cattle. He was released before they could arrest him, but they caught up with him several months later in Cherokee County, Texas, where he had married and was using the name George Elmore.

Kemp, too, was returned to Batesville, where he was held in the same jail as condemned killer Robert Lancaster. Kemp got a change of venue to Stone County, but in August 1879 he was convicted of first-degree murder. A newspaper reported that when he was sentenced to hang on October 3, 1879, the news was “received by the prisoner without the quiver of a muscle.”

Many people felt that Kemp’s death sentence should be commuted since he was so young when he shot Hulsey, and a petition with more than 1,000 signatures was sent to Governor William Read Miller seeking commutation of the sentence. On September 27, 1879, Miller declined to overturn the verdict.

Kemp was moved from Batesville to Evening Shade, where he was set to be hanged on October 3. More than 3,500 people gathered to watch the execution. Kemp, accompanied by a preacher, ascended the gallows around 12:25 p.m. When asked if he had any last words, he turned to the crowd and said, “Keep out of bad company. Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long in the land which the Lord thy God hath given thee….May God have mercy upon my soul.”

When the trap door opened at 1:01 p.m., the Batesville Guard reported that the rope slipped several inches and “prevented the jerk that he would have received,” leaving Kemp dangling with his feet six inches off the ground, and “a horrible sickening groan came from him….His convulsions were terrible, and lasted nearly two minutes, during which time the blood oozed from beneath the black cap, and stained his shirt front.” The Arkansas Gazette wrote that “after hanging four minutes there was a perceptible twitching of the muscles, and the medical attendants pronounced his pulse strong.” He was declared dead after eleven minutes and cut down after twenty, his body given to friends to bury.

For additional information:
“After Ten Years!” Batesville Guard, August 28, 1879, p. 3.

“Execution of Joe Kemp.” Batesville Guard, October 9, 1879, p. 3.

“Hemp for Kemp.” Arkansas Gazette, October 4, 1879, pp. 1, 5.

“Joe Kemp Hanged in 1879 for Hulsey Murder in 1869.” Independence County Chronicle 9 (October 1967): 42–50.

“Joseph Kemp.” Batesville Guard, October 2, 1879, p. 3.

Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System


No comments on this entry yet.