The Historic Washington State Park superintendent told me the other day that in about 1880 there was a trial and hanging at the 1874 court house that made news in several area papers, including the Arkansas Gazette and the venerable Washington Telegraph. Apparently there was a man living in Washington who brought his mistress into his home to live while his wife was living there. The wife was quite ill when the husband brought his girlfriend into the home and she continued to worsen until she died unaccountably sick and much too young. The superintendent said the man buried his wife with unseemly haste the day after she died.
Hearing about the death and hurried final arrangements, the owner of the nearby farm store got suspicious. He contacted the Hempstead County Sheriff and showed him a receipt for strychnine that the man had purchased not long before his wife’s death. The sheriff had the wife exhumed and checked for the poison, finding an abundance of it in her system.
The man was arrested and tried in the 1874 courthouse. According to the superintendent, he was found guilty and was executed by hanging in the usual place of doing so in the town of Washington. The newspapers reported that over 2,000 people attended the execution.
I was fascinated by the story but a bit puzzled about the urgency and excitement with which the park boss was telling me all about it. Puzzled, that is, until he said, “Dan, would you be interested in writing a re-enactment of the trial for production in the 1874 court house? We want to act it out in the 1874 court house periodically just like we do Washington’s first murder trial down at the 1835 court house.” That show is called “Trial by Jury.”
The superintendent knew about my published account of another court hearing entitled “Court of Inquiry” and he remembered my re-enactment as judge in Washington’s “Trial by Jury,” in which he, himself played the sheriff. My response as to my interest in the writing project was affirmative, of course. The park curator was sent to visit me that very evening and revealed some surprising details about that murder trial the superintendent had related earlier in the day. The culprit and his wife and mistress were African Americans.
Mary Madearis’ book on the Southwest Trail points out that people who had served in the Confederate Army were not allowed to run for nor to serve in the state legislature after the Civil War, so African Americans were often elected, and some of them later became county judges and clerks of court and held other local offices. Such was the case in Washington. As I work on the script, I will try to find out more history from court records if any exist. I know at least one really good local African American actor who would be perfect for the re-enactment. I’m sure the state park itself will provide an abundance of potential re-enactors for the play. What shall we call it? Haste Makes Waste? It should be a challenging project!