Lee Barnes (Execution of)

Lee Barnes was hanged at Dover (Pope County) on May 21, 1886, for the murder and robbery of a Conway County gambler.

Lee Barnes, twenty-three, who stood five feet nine inches tall and weighed around 130 pounds, moved from Blount County, Tennessee, to Plumerville (Conway County), where he worked for Charles Hollman, a gambler who ran a Wheel of Fortune gambling device at various events and gatherings. Barnes conspired with two men, John Cullens and Russell Watson, to kill and rob Hollman, who was also known as the Jewelry and Spindle Man, when he took the Wheel of Fortune to a “negro festival” about three miles from Plumerville.

On the night of November 20, 1885, Barnes and Hollman bedded down under the Wheel of Fortune table near the festival location. By prior arrangement, Cullens and Watson rode up to the campsite. Hollman invited the two to join him and Barnes in a card game.

As Hollman sat up, Barnes grabbed a pistol and shot him twice in the head. Cullens and Watson pulled the dying man from beneath the table; when Hollman continued groaning, Watson gave Cullens a knife and told him to cut his throat. Cullens handed the knife to Barnes, who instead grabbed an axe and hit Hollman in the head with it three times. The victim groaned again when the three loaded him into his wagon, and Barnes struck him again before hurling the axe into a nearby lake.

The three men split up the loot from the robbery, with Cullens and Watson each getting twenty dollars and Barnes getting twelve dollars and Hollman’s horses, wagon, and gambling device, all of which he later tried to sell to a man in Morrilton (Conway County). They buried Hollman’s body in a thicket near the crime scene.

Barnes and Cullens were charged with the murder in December 1885. In January 1886, Watson turned state’s evidence and, a newspaper reported, “gave the whole thing away.” Barnes escaped from the Conway County jail on February 24, 1886, with two other men, but he was recaptured about two weeks later.

Barnes, claiming he “cannot get a fair and impartial trial” in Conway County, received a change of venue to Pope County, where he was convicted of first-degree murder in April 1886 and sentenced to hang. Cullens, apparently tried separately, was sentenced to twenty-one years at hard labor in prison.

Barnes enjoyed a big breakfast on the morning of May 21, 1886, before granting a lengthy interview to a newspaper reporter in which he renounced testimony he had given during his trial implicating Cullens and Watson in Hollman’s murder, saying, “I alone did the killing,” and, “I sincerely trust that Cullens may receive a pardon for this crime, and lead a better life in the future.”

After eating a hearty lunch, Barnes walked to the gallows, around which up to 3,000 people had gathered to watch him hang. The condemned man shook hands with his spiritual advisors before ascending the scaffold, where he joined “an improvised choir” in singing, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” He then addressed the crowd for around thirty minutes, confessing to the crime and saying that he hoped everyone would “take warning from me.”

The sheriff pulled the lever on the trapdoor at 1:10 p.m., and as a newspaper reported, Barnes said, “‘Lord have mercy on my soul’ and went through the floor with the rapidity of lightning,” breaking his neck. After hanging for nineteen minutes, his body was turned over to his brother. Barnes is buried in McFadden Cemetery.

For additional information:
“Arkansas State News.” Southern Standard, January 9, 1886, p. 1.

“The Case of Lee Barnes, the Last Man Hanged in Pope County.” Pope County Historical Journal 42 (December 2008): 16–25.

“Correspondence.” Russellville Democrat, April 22, 1886, p. 2.

Erp, Johnny. “Thousands of Hill-side Folks Gather at Dover to See Lee Barnes Executed on Improvised Scaffold.” Pope County Historical Journal 25 (December 1991): 248.

“The Gallows.” Daily Arkansas Gazette, May 22, 1886, p. 1.

“Lee Barnes.” Russellville Democrat, May 26, 1886, p. 2.

“Morrilton.” Arkansas Gazette, March 13, 1886, p. 4.

“Punishment.” Arkansas Democrat, May 22, 1886, p. 8.

“Telegraphic Briefs.” Arkansas Democrat, February 26, 1886, p. 8.

Schrock, Earl and Glenda. “The Legend of Lee Barnes.” Mid-America Folklore 26 (Spring–Fall 1998): 1–20.

Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System


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