Mississippi County Executions of 1880
Armstead Penn of Memphis, Tennessee, was picking cotton in Mississippi County in late 1879 when he befriended George Sanford and Richard McKee, two local Black men. On November 26, 1879, they murdered Penn, “falling upon their victim in a lonely and unfrequented place.” They first shot him in the back, then smashed his skull with a club and “finished and made certain the devilish deed by cutting his throat.” The two men stole about forty dollars from their victim.
Penn’s body was found in a wooded area ten or twelve days after his murder, and Sheriff W. B. Haskins developed Sanford and McKee as suspects, tracing them to Kentucky, where he arrested them. They were tried in Osceola on May 6 and 7, 1880. While there was no direct evidence linking them to the murder, “a network of circumstances pointed unmistakably to the defendants as the criminals.” A Mississippi County jury found them guilty of first-degree murder, and Judge L. L. Mack sentenced them to death on May 11, 1880.
The gallows were “erected on the bank of the Mississippi river, under a gigantic pecan tree,” and 3,000 people gathered to watch Sanford and McKee hang on July 9, 1880. Both men mounted the scaffold, where they admitted that they had murdered Penn, and “a number of men pushed their way through the guards and climbed the steps of the scaffold, grasped the prisoners by the hands and bid them good-by.”
The trap door was dropped at 2:00 p.m., and McKee died quickly, his neck broken. Sanford’s noose slipped “and was drawn up against his left cheek. He cried out: ‘Oh, kill me; kill me’ and made many spasmodic twists, at one time drawing himself almost double” before he died.
For additional information:
“Arkansaw.” Daily Memphis [Tennessee] Avalanche, May 11, 1880, p. 4.
“Gone to Glory.” Arkansas Gazette, July 11, 1880, p. 5.
“Sentenced to be Hung.” Arkansas Democrat, May 12, 1880, p. 1.
Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System
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