William Owens (Execution of)

William Owens was an African American man executed at Varner (Lincoln County) on May 30, 1895, after being convicted of first-degree murder in the death of his wife.

William Owens’s wife, whose name was not included in any news reports, was “intimate with a neighbor named Will Collins” on May 17, 1894, and Owens beat her, leading her to move into her father’s house. On May 30, he found her hoeing cotton with around thirty other people in a field near Noble Lake (Jefferson County). He asked her to come back to him, and when she “flatly refused” he pulled a pistol and shot her before grabbing a hoe and hitting her on the head twice, breaking the handle. He snatched another hoe “and finished his work by again repeatedly striking her across the head,” reducing it “into a jelly.”

According to the Pine Bluff Daily Graphic, as Owens was fleeing the scene, he ran into a man named Grandville Simms “against whom he also had a grudge” and began chasing him. After running several miles, Owens fell exhausted and was captured by law officers who took him to the jail in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) to keep him from being lynched.

A Jefferson County grand jury indicted Owens for first-degree murder, but he received a change of venue to Lincoln County, where he was convicted of the charge on February 22, 1895, and sentenced to hang on May 30, 1895—exactly one year after the murder. He was returned to the jail in Pine Bluff for safekeeping.

Owens was a model prisoner, with the Pine Bluff newspaper observing that “he repented his crime and confessed religion and until the last said that he would be forgiven by God for his crime, which was committed in a heat of passion.”

In an instance of journalistic impropriety, the Arkansas Democrat on April 24, 1895, published “a full and complete account” of Owens’s execution, writing that “his bravado forsook him at the last moment and he appeared as a cowering wretch.” An Arkansas Gazette correspondent chided the newspaper the next day, stating that Owens was not scheduled to “stretch hemp” until late May and that he had found him “hale and hearty” in the Pine Bluff jail. He added that Owens was mulling a lawsuit “for false representation.”

Owens spent the night before his execution reading the Bible and praying, sleeping well, and enjoying “a very hearty breakfast of his own ordering” the next morning. He gave the Jefferson County sheriff his personal Bible, asking him to give it to his toddler son, Owens’s only surviving relative. At 10:20 a.m., Owens “smoked a cigar with perfect nonchalance” as he was taken to the railroad station for transport to Varner, followed by “a large crowd of curious people,” which the Gazette estimated at between 1,000 and 1,500 Black people.

At Varner, a Black preacher read Psalm 23 and Job 14 before Owens, at 12:45 p.m., walked to the gallows, which “the condemned man mounted firmly and stood at the trap. He sang, prayed and talked for thirty minutes” to about thirty witnesses. At 1:25 p.m., the trap door opened, and “his neck was broken by the nine-foot fall and he died without a struggle.” The Pine Bluff newspaper paper stated that “the execution was a perfect one in every respect.” He was declared dead eleven minutes later and buried at the county’s expense.

For additional information:
“Expiated His Crime.” Pine Bluff Daily Graphic, May 30, 1895, p. 1.

“Murdered His Wife.” Pine Bluff Daily Graphic, May 31, 1894, p. 1.

“Owen [sic] Hanged.” Arkansas Gazette, May 31, 1895, pp. 1, 2.

“Sentenced to Hang.” Arkansas Gazette, February 28, 1895, p. 1.

“To Be Hung Tomorrow.” Pine Bluff Daily Graphic, May 29, 1895, p. 1.

“To Suffer Death.” Pine Bluff Daily Graphic, February 22, 1895, p. 1.

“A Very Live Dead Man.” Arkansas Gazette, April 25, 1895, p. 1.

Pine Bluff Daily Graphic, February 24, 1895, p. 4, col. 3.

Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System


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