William (Lynching of) [1846]

On July 4, 1846, an enslaved man identified only as William was hanged by a mob in Columbia (Chicot County) for allegedly murdering Reece Hewitt, who was planter H. F. Walworth’s plantation overseer.

In 1840, Reece Hewitt was living in Chicot County with another white male and thirty-seven enslaved people. Much more is known about his employer. Horace Fayette Walworth was an early landowner in Chicot County, having bought land in Point Chicot in 1828. In 1850, Walworth, originally from Mississippi, was living in Chicot County and owned real estate worth $104,000. The Times Picayune and Daily Picayune advertised Walworth’s two plantations for sale in November 1852 and January 1853. According to the 1856 diary of B. L. C. Wailes (published in the December 1935 Mississippi Valley Historical Review), “Col Horace F. Walworth formerly of Natchez but for many years a very large Planter at Point Chicot on the Mississippi but who has recently sold his land and negroes for $300,00—, Mr. Walworth has been blind & is led about by his servant man.” By 1860, Walworth had settled in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and when he died there in 1863, his estate was estimated to be worth $400,000.

In 1846, the Arkansas Gazette reported that, almost two years earlier, Hewitt had been found on Walworth’s plantation, dead from stab wounds and a blow to the head. William was charged with the crime and tried in circuit court in the fall of 1845. The evidence seemed conclusive, but the jury could not reach a verdict, and William was jailed to await trial in the spring term. He was tried again in May 1846, and a July 5 letter written by someone listed only as J. C. and published in the Gazette on July 13 noted that, in this second trial, “the county had been nearly exhausted to obtain a jury such was the prejudice against the slave.”

William was convicted at this second trial, but according to the Gazette, “His counsel, who had been employed by his master to make the best defence [sic] for him, on which they were capable, moved for a new trial, and obtained it on the ground, that as the overseer was killed in a fight, it could not have been murder in the first degree, but was only manslaughter.” William was imprisoned once again, but many area residents feared that he would get a change of venue and escape punishment.

According to J. C., local residents began to plan in secret, and between twenty and thirty of them gathered in Columbia on the morning of July 4. Many of the leaders of the plot were local overseers who had lived in the county for many years and were considered “worthy men.” To divert attention from their activities, the mob members planned to attend the July 4 celebration and then go to the jail in disguise that night and try to take William. If the sheriff refused to turn over the keys, they would batter the door down. But the sheriff, T. H. Rives, learned of the plan earlier in the day and decided to foil it by hiding William in the woods. Members of the mob, however, were watching the jail and informed the others, who at 1:00 p.m. rushed to the jail. When the sheriff refused to turn over the keys, they began to try breaking down the door. The sheriff, however, persuaded many of them to rethink what they were about to do. By 2:00 p.m. they had left the jail, but by 5:00 p.m., the mob had grown considerably and once again went to the jail, breaking the doors down with an axe.

According to the Gazette, William was removed from jail in the face of the sheriff’s resistance and hanged nearby in broad daylight. Slaves made up about seventy percent of the population in Chicot County at the time, and according to the Gazette, “It is needless to add, that the fears of his eventual release were heightened by reflecting how mischievous would be the example, in that county, of a slave’s successful resistance to his overseer or master.”

The Gazette decried the violence, declaring, “How shall we find language…to express our abhorrence of the outrage of taking a criminal from the custody of the law, and hanging him on the anniversary of American Independence—a day, which is consecrated, all over the Union, to holy thoughts, and patriotic resolves? … on that very day seventy years ago, the great principle was announced, that the rights of life, liberty, and property should have the powerful aegis of laws…and not depend for their security upon the caprice of a tyrant. And what did they do, but tyrannically usurp the power to deprive a fellow being of his life,—that dearest of rights—and launch him into eternity?”

For additional information:
J. C. Letter. Arkansas Gazette, July 13, 1846, p. 2.

Jones, Kelly Houston. “‘Doubtless Guilty’: Lynching and Slaves in Antebellum Arkansas.” In Bullets and Fire: Lynching and Authority in Arkansas, 1840–1950, edited by Guy Lancaster. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2018.

“Mob Violence.” Arkansas Gazette, July 13, 1846, p. 2.

“Will of a Wealthy Louisianian.” Richmond Daily Dispatch, May 7, 1864.

Nancy Snell Griffith
Davidson, North Carolina

Last Updated: 07/12/2022