Phillip Pettus (Execution of)

Phillip Pettus was an African American man hanged on August 24, 1894, in Helena (Phillips County) after being convicted of first-degree murder for killing his wife.

Phillip Pettus may be the same man listed in the 1880 census as H. P. Pettice, age twenty-eight, a “mulatto” farmer who lived in Phillips County’s Cypress township with his wife, Emma, age twenty-three, and their two sons. By 1893, Pettus reportedly “mistreated his wife” to the point that she left him and went to work at another plantation near Hyde Park (Phillips County). Pettus repeatedly begged her to return to him, but she refused. Pettus told her that “she had better say prayers[,] for if she refused to live with him she would wear a wooden jacket.”

In April 1893, he again went to her carrying an “army musket” as she worked in a field. When she again rebuffed his pleas for her to come back to him, “he shot her in the back of the head literally tearing the head from the body.” At his trial, he claimed that he was actually shooting at a man “and…his wife got between them.” He was convicted of first-degree murder on April 30, 1894, and sentenced to be executed on June 21.

Governor William Meade Fishback granted Pettus a delay while he considered a petition to commute his sentence, and then delayed the hanging again on August 9, 1894, until he could “execute the necessary warrants.” Fishback ultimately denied the commutation and set August 24 as the day for Pettus to die. Pettus, meanwhile, worked with other inmates to try to cut through a brick wall at the Phillips County jail in a failed escape bid, after which “he was not allowed to leave his cell.”

An Arkansas Gazette correspondent reported that Pettus was “very ignorant, of brutish instinct, and laughed and danced the time away in jail” until a Black preacher visited him, after which “he at once embraced religion and…claimed that his sins were all forgiven and that he would go direct to Heaven.”

At noon on August 24, 1894, Pettus was taken to the gallows within an enclosure built to shield his execution from curious onlookers, leaving him “in the presence of less than a dozen witnesses,” many of them reporters. He confessed to the murder from the scaffold, then the trap door was opened, and “his neck was broken, and he was pronounced dead in eight minutes after the fall of the trap.”

For additional information:
“Hanging at Helena.” [Memphis, Tennessee] Commercial Appeal, August 25, 1894, p. 3.

“Pettus Hanged.” Arkansas Gazette, August 25, 1894, p. 1.

“Pettus Will Hang.” Arkansas Gazette, August 14, 1894, p. 8.

“Wife Murderer Pettus Respited.” Arkansas Gazette, August 10, 1894, p. 5.

“A Wooden Jacket.” Arkansas Gazette, May 2, 1894, p. 1.

Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System


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