• Rifle Regiment arriving at Belle Point, 1817. Artwork by Michael Haynes

    Fort Smith

    National Historic Site AR,OK

The Execution of Cherokee Bill

Up until the days immediately preceding his hanging, Cherokee Bill seemed little concerned with the affair. In fact, he spent most of his time playing poker with the other prisoners, manipulating the cards through the gratings on his cell door. Five days before the execution, though, he accepted religious advice from Father Pius of the German Catholic Church in Fort Smith. Cherokee Bill saw the priest every day thereafter.

The outlaw awoke at six on St. Patrick's Day, 1896, singing and whistling according to reports from other prisoners. Later that morning and early afternoon, his mother, brother, stepsister, the priest, and Amanda Foster, his childhood nurse, came to pay their last visits.

Some 2,000 to 3,000 sightseers surrounded the gallows enclosure that day. Newspaper reports said the scene "though not disorderly, was one of indescribable excitement." People were perched on stone walls and the roofs of nearby buildings, houses and sheds. One rickety shed near the gallows collapsed under the weight of its crowd.

As the scheduled time of execution, 2:00 p.m., approached, Bill announced that he was ready to go at any time. With a force of four guards, his mother, Father Pius and Amanda Foster accompanied Bill, handcuffed and shackled, from the jail to the gallows. At one point, the outlaw reportedly remarked that "This is about as good a day to die as any." Once Bill was on the scaffold, he eyed the crowd, saw his mother, and said "Mother, you ought not to have come up here." She replied, "I can go wherever you go."

At that time, the death warrant was read and Father Pius recited a short prayer. Bill stepped forward, his feet on the trap door and spoke to the crowd, saying, "Good-bye, all you chums down that way." His arms and legs were tied and a black hood placed over his head. At 2:13 p.m., he dropped in a fall of six feet. Cherokee Bill's neck was broken and death came quickly. Twelve minutes later the ropes that bound his limbs were removed, as were the handcuffs and shackles. His body was placed in a coffin and taken later that day to Fort Gibson for burial. Crawford Goldsby, alias Cherokee Bill, remains interred there today.

After his death, many people noted the significance of the unlucky number 13 in Bill's life. A $1300 reward was offered for his capture after killing Ernest Melton; his first death sentence was pronounced on April 13; he killed Larry Keating on July 26, two times thirteen; Judge Parker took 13 minutes to charge the jury in the Keating case; the actual hours used in the trial numbered 13; there were 13 witnesses for the prosecution; the jury took 13 minutes to find him guilty; and he fell though the trap of the gallows at 2:13 p.m.

Juliet Galonska
February 1995

References: Marauders of the Indian Nations by Glenn Shirley; Fort Smith Elevator.

This sketch is part of a series, “Fort Smith Minutes,” originally developed by the park staff to provide one minute long public service announcements for local radio stations. These sketches provide a light and entertaining glimpse into the complex history of Fort Smith.

Did You Know?

Portrait of Anna Dawes

A woman was responsible for the building of a modern federal jail at Fort Smith, AR, in 1888. Anna Dawes, daughter of Sen. Dawes of MA, visited the "Hell on the Border" jail in 1885 and wrote an article describing its conditions. When read in Congress, money was quickly approved for a new jail.