Tom Staner (Trial and Execution of)
The execution of Thomas Preston (Tom) Staner, sometimes spelled “Stainer,” on November 2, 1877, was the last execution to take place in Saline County. Staner was hanged for the murder of Harriet “Hattie” Staner (his uncle’s wife) and her neighbor, Parcell (or “Parlee”) Taylor, at the Staner house on Sulfur Springs Road about eighteen miles northwest of Benton (Saline County). Staner’s weapon of an iron poker, as well as the Staner family Bible and a framed photograph of Mack Staner, are all on display in the front room of the Gann Museum of Saline County.
On January 23, 1877, McHenry “Mack” Staner left his home with a load of cotton bound for Little Rock (Pulaski County). His wife Harriet “remained at home, and was kept in company by Mrs. Taylor,” their neighbor. According to the Arkansas Gazette, “On the day after Mr. Staner’s departure a neighbor visiting the house of Mr. Staner, found Mrs. Taylor lying dead on the floor while Mrs. Staner was lying by her, insensible, but mortally hurt and speechless.” An iron poker was found lying near them. Harriet lingered for another two hours before she died.
The bodies of the two women were reportedly discovered by sixteen-year-old Samuel H. Brooks, Tom Staner’s half-brother, who was cutting timber with his brothers for Mack Staner north of the home. Tom Staner rode to Benton to report the murders to Sheriff W. W. Thompson, who ordered his deputy Fred W. Shoppach to round up a posse and go with Tom back to investigate the crime scene. During the nearly twenty-mile ride back to the Staner house, Deputy Shoppach questioned Tom Staner, who was noticeably edgy and unwilling to communicate. By the time Staner and Shoppach arrived at the Staner house, there were hundreds of people camping in the Staners’ front yard.
A messenger caught up with Mack Staner near Collegeville (Saline County). After hearing the news, Mack Staner unhitched his horses and turned back immediately, having left his load at the side of the road. Mack Staner arrived just after Deputy Shoppach’s questioning began. The Brooks brothers reported that Tom Staner’s dog came to them in a frenzied state. Tracks found in the snow around the Staner house suggested that a man and his dog approached the house from the rear after crossing the road. John Curtis, another neighbor, reported that he saw a man matching Tom’s description at the Staner house at around 11:00 a.m.
Deputy Shoppach’s preliminary examination spanned two days. By Saturday night, an arrest warrant was issued. Tom Staner was indicted for trial at the March term of the Saline County Court. No breakthrough was made in the interim, so the case was continued by the state.
While in the Saline County jail, Staner was joined by cellmate called Professor Morgan, a schoolteacher jailed for disorderly conduct and abusing his wife while under the influence of alcohol. Deputy Shoppach offered Morgan a reduced sentence in exchange for information on Staner. During their next meal, Morgan noticed that Staner was writing a lengthy letter, which he then hid in a crack in the wall of their cell. Morgan was able to procure this letter and turn it over to the deputy. The letter, addressed to Staner’s brother, instructed him to look under a certain log for a stolen pocketbook and to use a portion of the money to hire Colonel George Latta of Hot Springs (Garland County), a lawyer. Sheriff Thompson and Mack Staner found the pocketbook, which contained about $225 in currency, gold and silver finger rings, and earrings. When Tom Staner was confronted with this evidence, he acknowledged his guilt, asked for God’s forgiveness, and said that his uncle’s wife had always been kind to him.
Benton residents soon heard of Staner’s confession and wanted it read aloud and in full. Soon after, cries of “Lynch him!” and “Mob him!” had erupted from a crowd that was moving toward the Saline County Courthouse. The noise was so loud it could be heard at the Pack Hotel down the street where Judge Jabez M. Smith and Governor William R. Miller were having dinner. Tom Staner was relocated to the Pulaski County Jail for safekeeping. He was visited by reporters with the Arkansas Gazette in May and November 1877. Staner revealed that he had experienced a recurring dream in which he killed for money and had become obsessed with enacting that dream.
Staner remained in Little Rock until he was remanded to Benton for trial in the October term of the Saline County Circuit Court. Despite his earlier confession, which he had signed, Staner pleaded “not guilty.” He was represented by George Latta at the preliminary examination, while Colonel S. H. Whitthorne and Hugh McCallum served as his counsel at the regular trial, having been appointed by the court. Staner rose twice during the trail and threatened to murder Colonel M. J. Henderson, the prosecuting attorney, with the same poker he previously used. Staner was found guilty and condemned to hang on November 2, 1877.
Having been returned to jail in Benton, Staner tried to burn the building down on October 23, 1877. He used an “escape blanket” to descend from his second-floor quarters and another blanket to keep the flames from being seen by passersby on the street below. As the fire enlarged the window opening, Staner jumped and injured his ankle. Deputy Shoppach found Staner and pulled him to his feet, but Staner ran about fifty yards before he was shot in the arm, thigh, and hip joint. Shoppach went back to the jail to save his family before moving Staner to the courthouse, where he stayed until his execution.
Having no experience with a court-ordered hanging, Deputy Shoppach was sent to Little Rock to learn the proper procedures from Pulaski County officials. On the day of Staner’s execution, November 2, 1877, a cautious reporter came for an interview armed with several guns. Staner quickly grabbed one of the revolvers but was subdued, leaving the reporter shaken but alive.
Staner had a light meal before being carried to the gallows bound to a chair. By noon, a reported 5,000 people gathered on the southeast corner of the courthouse lawn. Staner asked that his confession from that morning be read to the crowd, and he noted that he had planned to kill several more people, as well as burn down their homes and “ravish the women.” John Glenn, father of Harriet Staner, claimed the right to spring the death trap, which he did at exactly 1:01 p.m. The fall did not break Staner’s neck, but he died quickly from strangulation.
Tom Staner’s burial place is unknown, but Harriet Staner is buried next to her mother in a brick-and-mortar vault at Kentucky Cemetery, while Parlee Taylor is buried at Stainer Cemetery in Paron (Saline County). In December 1993, a bronze plaque was mounted on the vault, pointing out that her murder “resulted in Saline County’s last legal hanging.”
In 2002, the trial of Tom Staner was reenacted at the centennial celebration for the present-day Saline County Courthouse. Circuit Judge Gary Arnold conducted the mock trial with the help of Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Wes Bradford, public defender Pete Lancaster, and members of the Royal Players theater group. A gallows was built on the courthouse lawn, but the county judge decided not to have a mock execution. The infamous iron poker Tom Staner used, a photograph of Mack Staner, and the Staner family Bible are held at the Gann Museum in Benton.
For additional information:
Bowers, Rodney. “1877 Murder Trial to Be Re-enacted during Saline County Celebration.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 30, 2002, pp. 1B, 10B.
Crawford, Sybil F. “Gone But Not Forgotten: But Almost.” Pulaski County Historical Review 42 (Summer 1994): 36–45.
“Harriet Jane Glenn Stainer.” Find a Grave.com. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/9449015/harriet-jane-stainer (accessed March 31, 2023).
“Parlee Taylor.” Find a Grave.com. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/194390089/parlee-taylor (accessed March 31, 2023).
“Satan’s Recruit.” Arkansas Gazette, November 3, 1877, p. 4.
“Thomas Preston ‘Tom’ Staner (Stainer).” Find a Grave.com. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/66088261/thomas-preston-staner_(stainer) (accessed March 31, 2023).
Cody Lynn Berry
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