Robert Lancaster (Execution of)

Robert Lancaster was hanged on September 12, 1879, in Batesville (Independence County) for the Christmas Eve 1877 shooting death of a man at a dance in Sylamore (Stone County).

Robert Lancaster was born in 1851 in Richwoods (Stone County), which was then part of Izard County, the second of five children in the farming family of William and Rosy Lancaster. The September 13, 1879, Arkansas Gazette article on his execution describes his background thusly: “After receiving a good common-school education he learned the trade of a stone-mason, working at his trade when opportunity offered. He soon acquired dissipated habits, and being a man of immense physical strength, was considered a dangerous man when under the influence of liquor.”

On December 24, 1877, Thomas Johnson hosted a party at a store in Sylamore during which participants launched anvils and shot off fireworks. Lancaster and some friends, who had apparently been drinking, arrived, and when a firecracker went off near him, Lancaster shouted, “I weigh 183 pounds, and cover the ground I stand on, and can whip any three men in the house!” Friends led him away, but he returned around 11:00 p.m. and cut the strings to the fiddle player’s instrument. When Johnson confronted him, Lancaster pulled a pistol and shot him in the head, killing him.

Lancaster rode away, perhaps then spending time in Kansas and the Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) before returning to the mountains of Arkansas. While evading authorities there, he accidentally shot himself in the leg. When the wound became infected, he sought the assistance of a doctor and was arrested; the Batesville Guard intoned that “it looks like He who rules all things, had interposed in bringing about this blood-thirsty man’s capture, and we hope justice will be meted out to him.” The gangrenous leg was amputated.

He was indicted for murder in Stone County but won a change of venue to Independence County, where in July 1879 what the Arkansas Gazette termed “one of the most intelligent juries ever impanneled [sic] in Independence county” found him guilty of first-degree murder after a two-week trial, with the newspaper writing “he will undoubtedly hang, and present, too, rather a mournful spectacle, a one-legged man dangling at the end of a rope.” His execution was set for September 12, 1879.

Shortly before his hanging, Lancaster gave one of his attorneys an account for later publication. In it, he lashed out at the witnesses whose testimony led to his conviction for first-degree murder, “as I did not look on my offense as being more than manslaughter.” He also gave a lengthy interview with a newspaper reporter in which he implied that Johnson had been responsible for the actions that led to his death.

Lancaster experienced a jailhouse conversion, and as he prepared to walk to the gallows he stopped by the cell of a fellow condemned prisoner, Joe Kemp, who would hang a few weeks later, and told him “that he must prepare to meet his fate, ‘that God had given him strength to sustain him.’”

At 1:00 p.m. on September 12, Lancaster left the jail, arriving at the gallows twenty minutes later where a crowd of 5,000 people had gathered. A newspaper said that he told the assembled people: “If you don’t want to come to the gallows don’t be criminals; if you don’t want to be criminals shun bad company. Bad company brought me here.” Turning to Sheriff Robert R. Case, he said, “I die from false testimony, but if you feel as well as I do when you die [you] will be all right.”

The trap door opened at 1:29 p.m., and Lancaster “gave about a half dozen jerks and in 11 minutes he was pronounced dead.” Lancaster’s body was returned to Stone County for burial.

For additional information:
“Circuit Court.” Batesville Guard, August 7, 1879, p. 2.

“The Dance of Death.” Arkansas Gazette, September 13, 1879, p. 5.

“The Gallows.” [Nashville] Tennessean, September 13, 1879, p. 1.

“The Hanging of Robert Lancaster.” Independence County Chronicle 8 (April 1972): 42–54.

“A Heartless Murderer.” Arkansas Gazette, July 25, 1879, p. 8.

“Lancaster’s Legacy.” Arkansas Gazette, September 14, 1879, p. 8.

“The Murderer of Tom Johnson Captured.” Batesville Guard, January 31, 1878, p. 3.

Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System


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