First Woman Sentenced to Hang in Fort Smith

In the long list of people sentenced to death by Judge Parker between 1875 and 1896, the women are often overlooked. There were only four of them, and not one ever made the final ascent to the gallows scaffold.

Fannie Echols was the first woman convicted of a capital crime in the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas. She was a young, unmarried black woman who had been living with a man named John Williams at Eufaula, Creek Nation. The two apparently had a stormy relationship and quarreled quite often. One night in July of 1883, persons living in the same building as Fannie reported an argument between the couple early in the evening. Shortly thereafter, a pistol shot was heard from Fannie's room. Witnesses who rushed into the room found Williams lying on a pallet shot through the body, the bullet being imbedded in the floor. It appeared that he had either been killed as he slept or while he was lying on his back unsuspectingly.

Fannie maintained that she had shot in self-defense. Claiming that another man had entered the room and hung a pistol on the bed post, she said that Williams, the jealous type, became angry and threatened to kill her with the weapon. Once the other man left both Fannie and Williams made a dash for the gun. A scuffle followed and, according to Fannie, she grabbed the pistol and shot Williams as he attempted to wrest the revolver from her. She stated that she feared he was about to overpower her and secure the weapon. This story did not explain the bullet being found in the floor and underneath the dead body.

Fannie was arrested and lodged in the women's jail, which was the old military guardhouse, at Fort Smith. Her trial was set for December of 1883 and on Tuesday evening, December 18, the jury returned a verdict of guilty. On April 28, 1884, Judge Parker sentenced for to hang. The "plainly though neatly dressed" Fannie, when taken from the courtroom, "gave way to grief, and was taken to her cell crying."

The execution was scheduled to take place on July 11, 1884. Twelve days prior to this Fannie was baptized in the river by the minister of the black Baptist church in Fort Smith. It was not until July 2 that the Attorney General notified U.S. Marshal Thomas Boles that President Arthur authorized the commutation of Fannie's death Sentence to life imprisonment at the Detroit House of Corrections. Fannie accepted in writing the condition of the commutation and was then transported to Detroit.

Juliet Galonska
February 1995

References: Hell on the Border by S.W. Harmon; Fort Smith Elevator; Letters Received, marshal Boles, 1884-1885.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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