The Last Five Hangings
Pittsylvania County, Virginia

By Henry H. Mitchell, July 2004.

Daniel Allen Hearn of Botsford, Connecticut, recently wrote the Pittsylvania Historical Society to advise of his research on the last five persons who were publicly executed by hanging in Pittsylvania County:

All these executions occurred after the August 4, 1882 hanging of Walter Hamilton “Ham” Yeatts, who is sometimes mistakenly referred to as “the last man hanged in Pittsylvania County.” (See Herman Melton, Thirty-Nine Lashes — Well Laid On, 2002, pp. 272-285, for a thorough account of the Ham Yeatts incident.) The reasons for this memorable but erroneous designation as “last man hanged” may include the fact that the Yeatts case was a soap-opera drama involving high passions and some of the county's most prominent families; and also that in 1882 the Virginia General Assembly gave localities the option of passing their death-row inmates to a state facility for execution, rather than carrying out the sentences on local scaffolds. It is a logical assumption that all later executions occurred outside Pittsylvania, but researcher Hearn offers conclusive evidence for five subsequent hangings in Chatham.

For the Evans/King/Younger execution, Hearn provides as references articles from the Richmond Dispatch and New York Herald for Saturday, September 29, 1883. The articles state that the young men had been arrested for the murder of local farmer William F. Sheppard, who had been robbed and shot while on the way home after selling a load of potatoes in Danville. Several attempts to lynch the suspects had been foiled by Danville officials and military guards in Danville and Chatham. Evans and King confessed and implicated Younger (but later said they had done so in hopes of mercy from the Governor). The execution was carried out on a scaffold “in an enclosure 150 yards from the jail.” Younger was buried under the scaffold; Evans and King had earlier sold their bodies to the Richmond Medical College.

The Pritchett hanging is described in detail in a March 30, 1889 article from the Richmond Dispatch. Jed Pritchett had been convicted of the violent assault of an 8-year-old girl. The account includes the following:

Though shackled he resisted manfully and refused to stand on the trap. He fought and tried to bite the officers. His struggles were painful to behold. Finally he fell exhausted across the trap. The trigger was sprung about 12:30 and Pritchett pushed through the hole. He died from strangulation in twenty minutes after the drop fell. Under a recent act of the Legislature his body was turned over to agents of the University of Virginia and shipped there for dissecting purposes in the medical department.

An article from the Richmond Dispatch, November 12, 1897, describes the death of Edward Hankins on November 11. Hankins had been convicted of killing Dr. John Roy Cabell in northern Pittsylvania on August 28. Hankins had been a tenant for the frail, elderly Dr. Cabell, who died in a quarrel resulting from Hankins' firing and a related dispute over pay for work done by Hankins. The Dispatch article includes the following details of events leading up to the hanging:

Hankins slept well last night, and at 9 o'clock this morning ate moderately of the breakfast supplied from Sheriff W. I. Overbey's family table. During the morning Miss Jennie Nelson, principal, and several of the young ladies of the Episcopal Female College [now Chatham Hall], of Chatham, sang to the prisoner in his cell, and he was visited also by Rev. C. O. Pruden, rector of the Episcopal church, and by Rev. T. A. Hall, of the Baptist church, the latter spending hours with him, and administering final spiritual consolation at the scaffold. The gallows was erected in an improvised death chamber constructed about a small rear porch of the jail, the whole being about 8 by 14 feet square. In the centre of the floor the death trap, about 2 1-2 feet square, opened into a 10-foot deep pit. Two uprights of heavy timber, one at either side of the trap, supported the crossbeam from which was suspended the noose. Into this small boxlike arrangement were crowded the witnesses, when at 2:20 o'clock P. M. Sheriff Overbey directed his deputies to bring the prisoner from his cell.


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