Articles & Stories


One Of Kentucky's Last Legal
Hangings Took Place In Smithland

Reportedly, Thousands Gathered In The Streets
To See William T. DeBoe Hang For A Brutal Crime In 1935

By Hazel Robertson - 2004

One of the very last legal hangings in Kentucky took place in Smithland, out back of the Livingston County Jail on the courthouse lawn on April 19, 1935; when William T. DeBoe was hanged for a brutal crime.
Willie DeBoe and Ezra Davenport, a. k. a. George Taylor, drifted into Livingston County, Kentucky, supposedly from Arkansas, where they had apparently already been in trouble. On May 16, 1934, the two men appeared on foot at the door of a Livingston County merchant, just after he had closed his nearby rural store for the day. They claimed to be out of gas and said they were from Panhandle, which is a section of the county. Not knowing either man the merchant was reluctant but walked to the store with them. The men robbed the store, and then they forced the merchant to return with them to the house where they demanded supper.
While Davenport ate, DeBoe searched the house for money. When they were told that there was no money other than the Sunday School collection, DeBoe refused to take it, saying he had a good mother. After a whispered conversation between the two, Davenport, at gunpoint, took the merchant and his car back to the store for more merchandise, leaving DeBoe at the house with the merchant's 32-year-old pregnant wife and two small boys.
According to testimony of the wife, recorded in The Story Behind the Hanging of DeBoe by Odysseuss Keinmann, she was brutally attacked while the boys cried for her from another room. Davenport returned to the house, picked up DeBoe, and left with the merchandise and the car, which was abandoned in Lyon County, Kentucky.

Deputy Sheriff Asbe McCandless of Livingston County placed the hood over William T. DeBoe's head minutes before he was hanged in Smithland on the courthouse lawn on April 19, 1935.
(Photo submitted by Hazel Robertson.)

A week later on May 24th, Davenport and DeBoe appeared at a farmhouse in the same area. Again they searched the house for money, and while Davenport guarded the farmer DeBoe attacked the 52-year-old wife. They then took the farmer and his car to another nearby store and made the farmer call out the merchant. They robbed the merchant and took the car.
On June 2nd an aged woman in Bogota, Tennessee, who operated a store, was robbed and attacked. Davenport and DeBoe were taken into custody the next day and identified by the victim. Officers called George Heater, who was then the sheriff of Livingston County, since they realized it was the same men he wanted. Sheriff Heater, Commonwealth Attorney Alvin Lisenby, the merchant and his wife, and the farmer all went to the Dyerburg jail in Tennessee and identified DeBoe and Davenport.
Three days later a mob stormed the jail and the officers quickly wrapped the prisoners in sheets and smuggled them out to the Memphis jail. They remained there until extradition papers were completed and an agreement was made that if they were found not guilty in Kentucky that they would be returned for trial there. They were then transported to Eddyville State Penitentiary, by Sheriff Heater and Deputy Gabe McCandless, for holding.
Circuit Judge Charles H. Wilson called a special session of Livingston Circuit Court for July 16, 1934, and the following day the men were indicted. DeBoe was tried on July 19th, found guilty, and sentenced to hang. He denied the charge, but the victim's testimony was too strong. Davenport was then tried the next day and sentenced to 49 years in prison. DeBoe's attorney filed an appeal, and it was February 12, 1935, before the decision of the Court of Appeals upholding the verdict was received. The date of execution was set for April 19, 1935. DeBoe's 19-year-old sister, Margaret DeBoe, and attorney, A. Y. Martin, had been to Frankfort to plead for mercy from Governor Ruby Lafoon, but their plea was denied. Mrs. Gertrude McCollum, legal secretary in Smithland, let Margaret have a dress to wear the day of the execution.
Sheriff Heater had called a Mr. Hanna of Epworth, Illinois, who was an expert on the construction of gallows. He prepared the noose and knot in order to make sure there would be no strangulation and that the neck would break quickly for a painless death. He branded electrocution as inhuman. He was in Smithland for some time before the execution date, and on the day before he went to see DeBoe to reassure him that all details were taken care of. Hanna, the jailer, and Jim Martin worked long and hard. Immediately before the designated hour they were applying castile soap and powder to the knot for easy slipping.
Even before the prisoner was brought into Smithland at 2:30 a.m. on April 19th, the streets began to take on a carnival air, as hundreds of people poured into town. The crowd by early morning was extremely large and estimated as thousands. A comment often heard in Smithland until today when a crowd gathers is "biggest crowd since the DeBoe hanging." One woman from another county was killed in a car wreck that morning near Smithland on her way there.
Hundreds crowded into the compound, but it was cleared by numerous armed deputies, and no one other than those with a pass were allowed in. DeBoe's father and sister visited with him in the jail, and he was allowed to order breakfast for himself and Margaret. He spent the time consoling them and expressing no fear. Newsmen, Henry Ward and Edwin J. Paxton of the Paducah Sun-Democrat, and Dillard Stokes of the Associated Press, as well as Odysseus Keinmann, author of the above-mentioned book, were allowed a brief interview.
DeBoe was read the death warrant and indicated he was ready, and he told his father and sister, "Brace up, it's not as bad as you think." Then he walked with the sheriff and deputy up the 13 steps and was asked if he wanted to say anything. He launched into a long, repetitive speech, thanking the officers for treating him well, but venting his wrath toward the victims, berating them at length and calling them liars, and denying his guilt. He had admitted the robberies, but denied the assaults to the last.
After the hood was placed on the prisoner by Deputy McCandless, and the noose was in place and reexamined by Mr. Hanna, DeBoe's last statement was, "Take your time and do it right." Mr. Hanna did, and at 6.35 a.m. the trap door opened and DeBoe was declared dead 11 minutes later by Drs. Malcolm Dunn and W. T. Little.
The family was escorted to a waiting car and the body gently moved to a waiting hearse to be prepared at a Paducah mortuary and moved to the home of a cousin, J. E. Carter. Carter issued a public invitation, and hundreds accepted. Burial was in Oak Grove Cemetery in Paducah.
The trial and hanging must have been a terrible nightmare for the victim and her husband, but both stuck to their guns to see that justice was done. The victim was a brave lady and never wavered during her testimony. She was loved by her friends and admired for her fortitude by those who never knew her.

Hazel Robertson, 420 Alley Lane, Salem, KY 42078, a regular contributor to The Kentucky Explorer, shares this article with our readers.