“13 STEPS TO JUSTICE”

— FORT SMITH’S FIRST EXECUTION —

The afternoon of August 15, 1873, turned gray and foreboding, but the crowd gathered around the new gallows at Fort Smith, Arkansas, ignored the threat of an approaching storm to watch a prisoner navigate the thirteen steps to the scaffold.

FORT SMITH, ARKANSAS

Prisoner John Childers, cigar clamped between his teeth, wore a look of indifference as he made his way through the crowd of around two-thousand.

Ankles in chains, Childers shuffled across the platform to the on the trap door that would spring him into history as Fort Smith’s first-ever execution.

The half-blood Cherokee stood trial in October 1870 for the murder of a peddler named Reyburn Wedding, who made his living trading various commodities throughout Indian Territory.

Childers, on the other hand, established a reputation of a cold-blooded killer. According to some accounts, Childers slit the victim’s throat. Others say he smashed an ax against the back of Wedding’s head.

Childers took $280 from Wedding and dumped his body in a creek in Cherokee Nation. Another report said he also stole Wedding’s black horse.

Given the opportunity to utter his last words, Childers owned up to the killing and even mentioned that his “pals” promised to help him “if I ever got into a tight fix.” 

According to Robert F. Turpin in his book, Forgotten Tales and Legends of the Old West, Marshal John Sarber told the condemned man if he named his pals, he wouldn’t hang him on this day. 

“Hell, Marshal, are you ready to do your job?” 

“I am,” Sarber answered.

“Then let’s get her done. I’m as ready to leave this world as you are to see me go!”

Regarding the execution itself, the August 30th edition of The Enquirer of Tabor, North Carolina, wrote:

just as John Childers, the Cherokee murderer, dropped from the scaffold at Fort Smith … the skies suddenly darkened, and the soul of the criminal departed while a fearful storm of thunder and lightning was in progress.

Over the next two decades, a total of eighty-nine men were executed at Fort Smith after being found guilty of rape or murder.

Following the Civil War, cases of murder or rape carried a mandatory death sentence in federal courts.

Historians said the U.S. government put more men to death at Fort Smith than at any other place in American history.

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