Willis Reeves (Execution of)

Willis Reeves was hanged on July 15, 1881, in Van Buren (Crawford County) in a botched but ultimately successful execution for the slaying of an African American youth the previous year.

Willis Reeves, who a newspaper wrote was “chunky, muscular, dark-brown and had a malignant countenance,” became involved “in a dispute” with a Black youth named John Drake in Van Buren on June 6, 1880. Reeves ending up pulling a pistol and shooting Drake in the head, killing him.

Though no accounts appear to chronicle Reeves’s trial for murder, he was found guilty and sentenced to hang on July 15, 1881. Reeves would later try to escape in hopes of being shot and said he “bet a thousand dollars he would not hang.”

A crowd of around 3,000 gathered to watch the Black man’s execution on July 15, with the gallows set up on a high hill above Van Buren’s Fairview Cemetery. Unlike many condemned men who found solace in religion prior to their deaths, Reeves declined, saying he was neither religious nor afraid to die. Instead of the hymns often sung at hangings, Reeves sang a song about “his girl.”

The sheriff approached him on the gallows and bound Reeves’s arms, which “roused him like a tiger.” He burst the ropes binding him, and “a vigorous struggle began” during which the sheriff fell through the trap door. Reeves tried to flee but was subdued “just in time to keep him from plunging upon the bristling bayonets of the guards beneath.”

A noose was placed around Reeves’s neck, and the trapdoor opened, but “by a horrible act of carelessness the rope was too long.” Instead of the rope breaking his neck or strangling him, the killer’s toes hit the ground, and he “rebounded to dangle” until he was pulled back through the trapdoor, leaving Reeves “reeling, trembling, bruised and weak, gasp[ing] reproaches for the cruelty that was perpetrated upon him.”

A rope was again placed around Reeves’s neck, and he dropped through the door a second time, “this time with fatal result.” A newspaper reported: “Thus ended the career of Willis Reeves, the only man on record who was ever hung without claiming to be about to be jerked to Jesus.”

Reeves’s body was taken down and buried in the nearby cemetery. His was one of three executions in Arkansas on July 15, 1881; Isaac Green and John Hardin were hanged in Marianna (Lee County) on the same day.

For additional information:
“Current Crime.” Arkansas Democrat, July 16, 1881, p. 4.

“Five Murderers Hanged.” New York Times, July 16, 1881. https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1881/07/16/98565495.html?pageNumber=2 (accessed August 10, 2023).

“Hangman’s Day.” Arkansas Gazette, July 16, 1881, p. 1.

“Willis Reeves Pays the Penalty of His Crime.” Fayetteville Weekly Democrat, July 21, 1881, p. 1.

Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System


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