Will Purvis

Marion County, Mississippi
Date of Crime:  June 22, 1893

Will Purvis was convicted of the murder of Will Buckley. Buckley was a member of the Whitecaps, a tight-knit organization similar to the Ku Klux Klan. Its members swore in blood never to reveal its secrets. In early 1892, the Whitecaps had unmercifully flogged a black servant of Buckley. Buckley had known nothing of the Whitecaps' intentions and was absent. Enraged at this uncalled-for violence and the secrecy with which it was carried out, Buckley decided to submit the whole affair and to expose the secrets of the Whitecaps to the next meeting of the Grand Jury. At the Grand Jury meeting, Buckley's evidence was presented, and indictments were brought against the three Whitecaps who were known to be most brutal in the attack.

On his way home from the Grand Jury meeting, Buckley traveled through a forest path with his brother Jim and the flogged servant, all of them on horseback. While passing through a ravine a hidden gunmen shot Buckley dead. The gunman then jumped onto the path, reloaded his gun, and shot at Buckley's companions, but they escaped safely on horseback. Suspicion fell on 19-year-old Will Purvis, as bloodhounds indicated the killer escaped in the direction of the Purvis family home. Purvis admitted that three months previous he had joined the Whitecaps, but repeatedly professed his innocence of the crime. At trial Jim Buckley identified Purvis as the shooter. Purvis had alibi witnesses, but he was convicted and sentenced to death.

Purvis's hanging attracted hundreds of spectators, as hangings in those days were still public events. On Feb. 7, 1894, the rope was adjusted around Purvis's neck and tested. A deputy sheriff, seeing an ungainly length of rope dangling from the knot, cut the rope flush with the knot. When everything was ready, the executioner used his hatchet to cut the stay rope holding the trap and Purvis dropped with a sharp jerk. The knot, instead of tightening around its victim, untwisted, and Purvis fell to the ground, unhurt.

Dissension arose about whether Purvis should be hung a second time. It began with an individual, Dr. Ford, who despised the Whitecaps, but believed Purvis was innocent. Shouts from those nearby seemed to be evenly divided, but when a vote was taken by a show of hands, no one voted to resume the execution, and almost all voted for a stay. After consulting an attorney, officials were prepared to resume the execution. However, when Dr. Ford threatened to call 300 men from the crowd to stop the execution, officials relented and brought Purvis back to jail.

The question of whether Purvis should be hanged again was brought to the state Supreme Court. The court ruled that the fact that officials had been careless in securing the knot was no reason that the law should be thwarted. It ordered Purvis be hanged again. In the town to which Purvis had been removed, indignation over the court ruling court ran high. On the evening before the scheduled July 1895 hanging, a group of friends abducted Purvis from the jail and hid him on a secluded farm. His friends intended to keep him until they could be assured that his life would be spared.

In the following gubernatorial election, one of the issues was whether or not Purvis, if caught, should be hanged. The candidate in favor of modifying the sentence, A. J. McLaurin, won the election. When he assumed office, Purvis voluntarily surrendered himself, and McLaurin, in accordance with his promise to the people, commuted the sentence to life imprisonment on March 12, 1896. Two years later the state's star witness, Jim Buckley, who had identified Purvis as the murderer, stated that he might have made a mistake, and that possibly it was not Purvis whom he had seen. Purvis was consequently given a full and unconditional pardon in Dec. 1898.

In 1917, another man, Joe Beard, became seriously ill and confessed to participating in the murder of Will Buckley. He named his accomplice who shot Buckley. Beard was supposed to shoot Buckley's two companions, but lost his nerve, allowing them to escape. Beard's accomplice could not be prosecuted, because Beard died before he could sign a written confession. Buckley's killer lived alone in the woods and was never again seen in town. In 1920, the Mississippi legislature awarded Purvis $5000 as compensation for his 4 years of wrongful imprisonment, 3 of which were at hard labor.  [12/07]


Source:  Convicting the Innocent

Posted in:  Victims of the State, Mississippi Cases