Will H. Hardin (Lynching of)

Will H. Hardin was murdered in his jail cell in Clinton (Van Buren County) on April 17, 1899, after his death sentence for killing a local man was commuted. An accomplice, Lee Mills, had already been hanged for his role in the incident.

Hardin—a former deputy sheriff—and Mills, both of whom lived near Scotland (Van Buren County), rode to the home of Hugh Patterson on Culpepper Mountain about six miles southwest of Clinton on the evening of December 13, 1897, intending to rob him of between $1,000 and $1,800 believed to be in his house. Also at the house when the robbers arrived were Patterson’s son Jim, along with Jim’s wife Rebecca and their five children. Patterson’s brother William James Patterson was also there.

Rebecca Patterson was rocking a sick baby in the living room when the two masked men burst through the door, causing her to scream. The three Patterson men rushed into the room and immediately began fighting with the robbers. As Mills and Jim Patterson fought over a pistol, Hardin cut Hugh Patterson’s throat and shot him twice, then cut Rebecca Patterson’s neck. William Patterson was hit over the head and wandered from the house while Hardin cut Hugh Patterson’s neck from ear to ear.

After ransacking the house in an unsuccessful attempt to find Patterson’s money, the robbers fled, intent on hiding their tracks in the snow. However, it stopped snowing shortly afterward, and lawmen were able to track them down and arrest them for the crime a few days later.

Hugh Patterson was the only victim to die of his wounds, and Hardin offered to testify against Mills, who was convicted of the crime by a Cleburne County jury after the trial received a change of venue. Mills later gave a confession in which he blamed Hardin for planning the robbery, saying the former deputy had lied under oath when he said Mills had committed the murder. Mills was hanged before a crowd of a few thousand people at Heber Springs (Cleburne County) on September 16, 1898.

Hardin was tried in September 1898, convicted, and sentenced to hang. The Arkansas Supreme Court overturned that conviction and ordered a new trial at which Hardin was again convicted and condemned to hang in May 1899. However, Governor Daniel Webster Jones commuted Hardin’s death sentence, ordering that he instead serve twenty-one years in the Arkansas state penitentiary.

Newspapers reported that, around 2:00 a.m. on April 17, 1899, between fifty and seventy-five armed men “disarmed the guard, overpowered the jailer, went into the cell and shot W. H. Hardin,” blowing his head off. A week or so later, though, Van Buren County Sheriff W. S. Maddox wrote Jones to provide a different narrative. Maddox said he found no tracks or anything to indicate that a mob had been at the jail, surmising that the guard and jailer had let one or two men into the building, one of whom had a shotgun and “poking it through an aperture in the cell, fired both barrels into Hardin’s head.” A coroner’s inquest concluded that Hardin “had come to his death by gunshot wounds in the hands of parties unknown.”

In early May 1899, newspapers reported that Jim Patterson, Hugh Patterson’s son, “was assassinated in his home in Van Buren county last week,” adding that “Hardin was shot to death in jail, and it is believed his friends murdered young Patterson.”

For additional information:
Barger, Carl J. Cleburne County and Its People, Vol. 2. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2008.

Berry, Evalena. Time and the River: A History of Cleburne County. Little Rock: Rose Publishing Company, 1982.

“Hardin Assassinated.” Arkansas Gazette, April 25, 1899, p. 2.

“Hardin Shot Down.” Arkansas Democrat, April 18, 1899, p. 2.

“Hardin Will Not Hang.” Monticellonean, April 21, 1899, p. 1.

“His Head Blown Off in the County Jail.” [Nashville] Tennessean, April 19, 1899, p. 8.

“Young Patterson Assassinated.” Southern Standard, May 12, 1899, p. 1.

Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System


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