Lee Mills (Execution of)
aka: Will Hardin (Lynching of)
Lee Mills was hanged at Heber Springs (Cleburne County) on September 16, 1898, for a murder and robbery in Van Buren County. His accomplice, Will H. Hardin, was murdered in his jail cell in Clinton (Van Buren County) on April 17, 1899.
Mills and Hardin—the latter a former deputy sheriff—both of whom lived near Scotland (Van Buren County), rode to the home of Hugh Patterson on Culpepper Mountain about six miles southwest of Clinton on the evening of December 13, 1897, intending to rob him of between $1,000 and $1,800 believed to be in his house. Patterson’s son Jim, Jim’s wife Rebecca and their five children, and Patterson’s brother William James Patterson were also at the house when the robbers arrived.
Rebecca Patterson was rocking a sick baby in the living room when the two masked men burst through the door, causing her to scream. The three Patterson men rushed into the room and immediately began fighting the robbers. As Mills and Jim Patterson fought over a pistol, Hardin cut Patterson’s throat and shot him twice, then cut Rebecca Patterson’s neck. William Patterson was hit over the head and wandered from the house while Hardin cut Hugh Patterson’s neck from ear to ear.
After ransacking the house in an unsuccessful attempt to find the money, the robbers fled, intent on hiding their tracks in the snow. However, it stopped snowing shortly afterward and lawmen were able to track them down and arrest them for the crime a few days later. Hugh Patterson was the only victim to die of his wounds.
A coroner’s inquest accused Mills and Hardin in Hugh Patterson’s death, and Hardin soon tearfully confessed to the crime, blaming Mills for the murder and thus enraging Mills to the point where “he swears that he will kill Harden [sic] if he has to do it standing on the scaffold.” Van Buren County lawmen considered moving the men to Little Rock (Pulaski County) for safekeeping but feared their friends might try to rescue them, so “a strong and heavily armed guard was kept about the jail, inside and out, night and day.” Mills “is kept chained to his cot at night” and was then shot and wounded when he attempted to break out of jail.
A grand jury indicted both men on first-degree murder charges on March 25, 1898, and, after a change of venue to Cleburne County, Mills’s trial began on April 8. Hardin testified for the prosecution, again accusing Mills of the murder. That trial ended with a hung jury, but another jury was quickly empaneled, and Mills was convicted and sentenced to hang on June 17.
That execution was stayed while Mills appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court, which affirmed the sentence in July. Mills then confessed his role in Patterson’s death but said that Hardin was the killer. He claimed that he confessed “as a warning to the young men and boys of the country. I hope there is no other boy in the world as big a fool as I am, as to be begged into a thing of this kind.”
Mills then sought commutation of his sentence from Governor Daniel Webster Jones, who refused and set September 16, 1898, for the execution.
Crowds began to gather in Heber Springs on the morning of the hanging, and the Arkansas Gazette reported that “not a muscle quivered in the form of Lee Mills as he stepped upon the scaffold and faced 3,000 people” gathered on a nearby knoll that overlooked the execution site. Mills shook hands with the lawmen who stood with him on the scaffold “and smiled as he bid them good-bye.”
The trap door opened at 2:54 p.m., and “the body turned half round—not a muscle stirred nor quivered. Mills hanging by the neck was the same as all through life—a calm, deliberate bundle of nerve.” He was declared dead fifteen minutes later, leaving his wife and daughter behind.
Hardin was tried in September 1898, convicted, and sentenced to hang. The Arkansas Supreme Court overturned that conviction and ordered a new trial at which Hardin was again convicted and condemned to die in May 1899. However, Governor Jones commuted Hardin’s death sentence, ordering that he instead serve twenty-one years in the Arkansas state penitentiary.
On April 17, 1899, however, armed men entered the Van Buren County jail and opened fire on Hardin. A coroner’s inquest concluded that Hardin “had come to his death by gunshot wounds in the hands of parties unknown.”
For additional information:
Barger, Carl J. Cleburne County and Its People, Vol. 2. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2008.
Berry, Evalena. Time and the River: A History of Cleburne County. Little Rock: Rose Publishing Company, 1982.
“Confessed His Crime.,” Arkansas Democrat, August 19, 1898, p. 8.
“Day of Execution Fixed.” Arkansas Democrat, August 23, 1898, p. 8.
“Evil Associations.” Arkansas Democrat, September 28, 1898, p. 6.
“Harden [sic] Confesses.” Arkansas Democrat, January 3, 1898, p. 4.
“Hardin Shot Down.” Arkansas Democrat, April 18, 1899, p. 2.
“Hope is Lost!” Arkansas Gazette, August 24, 1898, p. 4.
“Lee Mills Convicted.” Arkansas Gazette, April 30, 1898, p. 3.
“Lee Mills on Trial.” Arkansas Democrat, April 23, 1898, p. 6.
“Lee Mills on Trial.” Arkansas Gazette, April 14, 1898, p. 2.
“Lee Mills Shot.” Arkansas Democrat, January 4, 1898, p. 6.
“Lee Mills to Hang.” Arkansas Democrat, July 9, 1898, p. 1.
“Mills and Harden [sic] Indicted.” Arkansas Gazette, March 27, 1898, p. 3.
“Patterson Murder Trial.” Arkansas Gazette, April 12, 1898, p. 4.
“Patterson’s Murderers.” Arkansas Gazette, December 26, 1897, p. 1.
“A Story of Blood.” Arkansas Gazette, January 4, 1898, p. 2.
“Supposed Murderers Captured.” Forrest City Times, December 24, 1897, p. 4.
“Town up in Arms.” Arkansas Gazette, January 15, 1898, p. 5.
Untitled. Arkansas Democrat, July 22, 1898, p. 8.
“Without a Quiver.” Arkansas Gazette, September 20, 1898, p. 3.
Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System
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