Richard Rhodes (Hanging of)

Few people survive a hanging, but Dr. Richard Rhodes—a plantation owner in Dallas County, living just south of present-day Sheridan (Grant County)—may have survived two.

Richard Clinton Rhodes was born in North Carolina in 1801 to a prominent family. He received medical training in Europe and then opened a practice in Robeson County, North Carolina. There, he invested in land and quickly became a rich plantation owner with nearly 200 slaves. Rhodes married Susan Davis Russell when she was sixteen and he was forty-six. The Rhodes family’s oral history says that while practicing medicine in North Carolina, Rhodes delivered Susan as a newborn. The Russell family could not afford to pay Rhodes’s medical fee, so the baby girl was offered to him as his future bride. Sixteen years later, they married.

When the Civil War broke out, Rhodes, who was too old for actual combat, spent his vast fortune purchasing Confederate bonds. He also loaned money to family and neighbors to help them survive the lean war years. By the end of the war, Rhodes had lost his plantation in North Carolina, most of his plantation land in Arkansas, all of his money, all of his slaves, and all of his crops, including 300 bales of cotton at his Sheridan plantation that outlaws burned after the war ended. The house south of Sheridan and some of the acreage were all that remained of his vast empire.

Whether Richard Rhodes was hanged once or twice, he appears to be the first victim in a spate of violence attributed to the same band of outlaws, possibly a group called the Graybacks. These men are believed to be responsible for at least three murders—the hanging of Richard Rhodes, the hanging of James Kennedy, and the burning of Elizabeth White. A group of armed men took James Kennedy and a Mr. Stanfield, both of Dallas County, from their homes on the night of August 11, 1866, and hanged them. While some historians note Kennedy was hanged for open Union sympathies, possibly making his murder politically motivated, the killings by the Graybacks were opportunistic murders for money by desperate outlaws. Politics for them was an alibi, much like it was for Jesse James, but their motive for murder was profit.

The same gang kidnapped William Kennedy (son of James) and a Mr. Munn but later released them unharmed. Elizabeth White, a rich landowner and mother-in-law to Alexander Pinchback (a wealthy plantation owner), and her daughter, Jane, were tortured on the night following the Rhodes’s hanging to make them reveal the location of a cache of gold. Elizabeth White did not reveal any information and died of her burns on November 26, 1865.

Newspapers at the time of Rhodes’s hangings failed to mention them, although the lynchings of other prominent men, such as James Kennedy in 1866, were briefly covered in the local papers. Even among the Rhodes family, ghostly tales of Richard’s hangings vary. No one disputes that at some point he was hanged with wire and had his windpipe severed; family oral history holds that he was hanged from a large walnut tree in front of the house and that ex-slaves cut him down after the gang departed. The date of the attack was November 25, 1865. A January 26, 1941, Arkansas Gazette newspaper article written by Alma Glover Stuckey stated, “The Graybacks had again returned and once more hanged him [Rhodes], this time using wire instead of rope.” However, he survived this hanging, too, and was forced to hold his windpipe together when he ate for the rest of his life.

Two years later, Rhodes apparently died of the injuries he suffered on November 25, 1865. Direct evidence that Rhodes lingered two years is scarce, but a letter written by Susan Rhodes, his wife, to her sister in North Carolina, in 1867, indirectly confirms this legend. In the letter, Susan refers to Rhodes’s death, stating, “My beloved darling is no longer with me.”

For additional information:
Goolsby, Elwin. Strangers No More. Grant County, AR, Museum Publication, 1992.

Stuckey, Alma Glover. “Home of an Early Settler.” Arkansas Gazette, Magazine Section, January 26, 1941, p. 10.

Larry LeMasters
LeMasters’ Antique News Service