William Johnson (Execution of)

William Johnson was a young African American man hanged near Monticello (Drew County) in 1883 for murdering the husband of a woman with whom he was having an affair.

Calvin Williams, “a respectable colored man,” disappeared in the fall of 1880 from his place on Jacob Pruitt’s plantation near Tillar (Drew and Desha Counties). Authorities suspected William Johnson, who was “a terror among the negroes of the county, and many poor white people feared him,” and Matilda Williams, the missing man’s wife, in the disappearance, but there was no evidence.

Johnson and Matilda Williams then lived together until she left him after an argument and he made it known to her that he “knew enough against her to have her neck broken and she could take her choice—live with him or die.” She came back to him, and they married, with Matilda Williams claiming that her first husband had left her.

In spring 1883, an old “deadening” about three miles from the Pruitt plantation was cleared and a shallow grave was discovered with skeletal remains that were determined to be those of Calvin Williams, dead from “a heavy blow on the back of his head, which crushed his skull.” Sheriff J. H. Hammock arrested Johnson and Matilda Williams for bigamy (Johnson, age twenty-four, was already married; Matilda Williams claimed her husband had left her) while he further investigated the case. With Johnson in jail, several witnesses came forward and offered testimony against them in Calvin Williams’s murder.

They were tried in August 1883, along with men named Caesar Pitts and Alex Johnson (no known relation); Johnson claimed that Alex Johnson delivered the fatal blow and Pitts helped bury the body. Alex Johnson was freed for lack of evidence and became the “strongest witness against Bill Johnson.” The other three defendants were all convicted of the murder and sentenced to hang in October.

William Johnson later confessed to the crime, saying he and Matilda Williams “became intimate” and determined to kill her husband. After several attempts failed, Johnson convinced Calvin Williams to accompany him to the “deadening” of girdled trees to kill a hog. While Williams was bent over making a fire, Johnson struck him with an axe, killing him. He and Pitts then dug a hole and buried him, he claimed.

Matilda Williams and Pitts were both granted appeals, and while the final outcome of their cases could not be determined, neither was executed.

William Johnson, on the other hand, was escorted from the Drew County jail on October 12, 1883, by a “heavily armed force” followed by “about four thousand negroes” to the gallows in a grove of trees about a mile east of Monticello, accompanied by spiritual advisors. After ascending the scaffold, Johnson distributed several silver coins that he had received for selling his corpse to a doctor, asking that the money be sent to his children.

Johnson confessed from the gallows, exonerating Pitts and saying instead that he and Alex Williams, who also was having an affair with another man’s wife, had devised a plan to kill each of their lovers’ spouses, claiming that Williams had struck the fatal axe blow. Johnson then said, “I am ready, step in death.” Shortly after 5:00 p.m., “the spring was touched and the soul of the murderer was launched into eternity. One or two turns of the body and slight contractions and all was over.” His body was cut down twenty-three minutes later.

For additional information:
“Death’s Own.” Arkansas Democrat, September 6, 1883, p. 4.

“The Gallows.” Arkansas Democrat, October 12, 1883, p. 3.

“Gone to Glory.” Arkansas Gazette, October 13, 1883, p. 1.

“Hanged.” Arkansas Democrat, October 13, 1883, p. 1.

“Sentenced to Hang.” Arkansas Gazette, September 7, 1883, p. 5.

Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System


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