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Friday, November 16, 2012

The Hanging of an Innocent Man - Will Purvis

William Isaac Purvis was known as “Hanging” Will Purvis

William Isaac Purvis was born on 27 Sep 1872 in Jasper County, Mississippi. He was a son of Isaac Newton Purvis and Mary Frances Johnson.

In Mississippi during the 1890's the Ku Klux Klan was on the wane as a result of the passage of the Force Acts and prosecutions of Klan members.  But, in the dark shadows a new group was forming to replace the Klan call the “Whitecaps.”   

In early 1893, a band of Whitecaps decided to flog a “negro” belonging to one of its members a man named William Buckley. This infuriated Mr. Buckley and he sought justice through the courts. On returning home after the Court session William Buckley was jumped and killed. Unfortunately, for Will Purvis, age 21**, was the fact that the road/trail led to his house and a neighbor who desired the land that the Purvis‘ possessed also pointed a finger at young Will Purvis as the culprit.

Will was arrested and hauled off to jail. He was found guilty and sentenced to death even though he profusely denied any involvement in the crime. In Court, on August 5th, 1893 he was sentenced to be hanged on 7 February 1894. The sentence was upheld in October 1893 by the Mississippi Supreme Court.

On the morning of 7 February 1894, Will was taken out of his cell to the gallows. On the gallows Will’s last word were ”You are going to take the  life of an innocent man, but there are people here that know who did commit the crime and if they will come forward and confess, I will go free.”[1]  

The noose was placed over his neck, the preacher prayed, the sheriff fidgeted with the knot and sliced some strand off the rope; the lever was pulled, the knot slipped and Will Purvis found himself alive lying on the ground under the gallows.

The crowd became boisterous dividing into groups; those crying for the hanging to continue and those who thought there had already been one too many hangings.

The Rev. J. Sibley bounded up the gallows stairs raising his hand and asked “those who want to see the boy hanged again raised their hands”. There was total silence. No one move. He next asked  “those who opposed the hanging  of  Will Purvis a second time raised their hands” and almost every hand in the crowd went up. The hanging ended that day with young Purvis being taken back to jail. The case was sent the Mississippi Supreme Court and they ruled the sentence must be carried out. Young Will Purvis was re-scheduled for hanging on 31 July 1895. Indignation over the court ruling was momentous.  

Will Purvis was broken out of jail and he begin a life on the lamb being hid out by his friends. An election for state governor was on the horizon and one of the candidates, A. J. McLaurin favored modifying young Will's sentence.  McLaurin won and on 12 March 1896, he commuted Will’s sentence to Life Imprisonment.

Two years later the state’s star witness, Jim Buckley, recanted his testimony and admitted he might have made a mistake.

Will Purvis was given a full pardon on 19 December 1898.

On 27 September 1900 young Will married his childhood sweetheart – Sarah Matilda Boone. Will became prosperous as a farmer and footsteps of 7 young children could be heard throughout the house.

One thing bothered Will and that was that he was innocent and he had never been exonerated.  In 1917, the murderer, a man named Joe Beard, attended a “Holy Rollers” revival service and the burden of the sin he had committed that night in 1893 got the best of him. He confessed to the crime during the service, pointing the finger at Louis Thornhill as the actual trigger man..

Will Purvis was completely exonerated of any involvement in the murder of William Buckley. For the four year he had spent incarcerated ; three of them doing hard labor, Will was awarded $5000.00 in compensation  by the Mississippi Legislature in 1920.

William Isaac  Purvis died on 13 Oct 1938 at the age of 66 in Purvis, Lamar Co., MS. His wife Sarah Matilda Boone was born on 22 Jun 1883 and she died on 13 Jul 1944 at the age of 61 in Purvis, Lamar Co., MS.

[1], page 212
** some documents states that young Will Purvis was only 17 years old

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