William Watkins (Execution of)

William Watkins was hanged in White County on April 25, 1873, for the murder of his landlord; his execution made national headlines when he attempted to choke himself to death on the gallows.

William Watkins, a native of Franklin, Georgia, moved to White County around 1871 and rented land near Searcy (White County) on the Little Red River from farmer William Swaggerty, possibly as a sharecropper. A newspaper reported of Watkins that “instead of working it [the land] he hunted and fished,” leading Swaggerty to ask “him to work his crop and loaf less.”

Watkins, who reportedly had killed three men before moving to White County, in what was called “unquestionably one of the most cowardly and brutal murders imaginable,” ambushed Swaggerty as he was cutting corn for his horse in early August 1872. After shooting him from hiding, Watkins “walked up to him and discharged the other barrel into his body” before making his two sons also shoot Swaggerty with their guns. The three then fled “and the citizens of Jackson Township turned out to hunt them,” offering a $2,000 reward for their arrest.

The trio was captured, but the older Watkins son escaped from jail before his father and brother went before the spring term of the White County circuit court on charges of first-degree murder, an act described as “one of the foulest deeds that ever soiled this court.” A newspaper described Watkins as “a man of about forty years of age; is rather fleshy and thickset; has a low brow, wandering, watery eyes.” His younger son, Jack, was described as “a boy of about fourteen and a cripple.”

It was reported that Watkins “talks very little to his lawyer, and seems rather obstinate” during the trial while his son “assumes a very quiet demeanor, and seems lost in thought.” Both Watkins and his younger son were convicted of Swaggerty’s murder, with Watkins sentenced to hang and his son to seven years in the penitentiary. Another man, Brown Brewer, was also sentenced to death during the spring 1873 session of the circuit court.

Around 1,000 people gathered to watch Watkins’s execution on April 25, 1873, and newspapers reported that he “attempted to choke himself to death” on the gallows, forcing three men to restrain him until the sheriff could arrange the trapdoor. Watkins was left hanging for forty-seven minutes before being cut down and placed in a coffin.

For additional information:
“Attempted Suicide on the Scaffold.” Tarboro, North Carolina Enquirer, May 10, 1873, p. 2.

“In and About the Capital.” Arkansas Gazette, March 2, 1873, p. 4.

“Murder in White County.” Southern Standard, August 24, 1872, p. 3.

“Something New in the Choking Line.” Chicago Evening Post, April 29, 1873, p. 4.

“The State at Large.” Arkansas Gazette, February 23, 1873, p. 1.

“Uptown and Down.” Arkansas Gazette, March 5, 1873, p. 4.

Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System


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