Hanging made history in Lincoln County

Published 5:00 am Tuesday, July 1, 2003

At the February 1902 meeting of the Lincoln County Board ofSupervisors, the following order was passed:

“It is ordered by the Board of Supervisors of Lincoln County, inthe State of Mississippi, in accordance with and by order of theSupreme Court of the State of Mississippi, as described in themandate of said Court of date of January 23, A.D. 1902, that JohnSasser, for his crime of the murder of Thomas Lard, be kept inclose confinement in the jail of Lincoln County, Mississippi, bythe Sheriff of said county until Tuesday, the 11th day of March,A.D. 1902, on which day, between the hours of 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.he, the said John Sasser, shall be by the sheriff of said county,within the enclosure of the said court house yard of said county,in the city of Brookhaven, Mississippi, hanged publicly by the neckuntil he be dead.”

No white man had ever before been hanged in Lincoln County, norhas any other since.

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John Sasser at 39 years of age had earned a reputation of aflamboyant, violent man. He was already under indictment for onemurder when he was sentenced to be hanged for another.

Numerous other murders had been committed by white residents,and capital convictions obtained, but invariably the governorswould honor the petitions for mercy signed by hundreds of citizens(and voters) and would issue a pardon or commute the death sentenceto life imprisonment.

In Sasser’s case, petitions for commutation signed by over athousand residents were sent to Governor Longino, but four daysbefore the execution date, the governor expressed sympathy for thefamily, “but, as governor, with the grave responsibility on me, Ifeel I must let the law take its course.”

The murder for which Sasser was to pay the highest penalty wasof Thomas Lard, a saw filer at the Pearl River Lumber Company and apeaceable, mild man, but a heavy drinker. Apparently, Sasser killedLard with Lard’s own pistol with one shot in the forehead. He wasfound dying on North First Street on a small bridge, and two menwere seen running away.

Sasser disappeared the day after the murder but was soon nabbedafter Governor Longino offered a $150 reward.

The other party, Tom Pritchard, from Jefferson County hadreturned to work the next day and was arrested on the job.Pritchard was kept confined in the Hazlehurst jail until the day ofthe trial. He was the prosecution’s prime witness. Newspaperaccounts do not give details of Pritchard’s testimony at the trial,but apparently it was damning. The jury returned a guilty verdictafter a short deliberation, and the death sentence was handed downby Judge Powell. The trial and sentence withstood the scrutiny ofthe Mississippi Supreme Court, and March 11th was ordered as theexecution date. Incidentally, two other condemned murderers in thestate had their sentences upheld at the same time-one in JonesCounty and one in Monroe County-and were given the same date fortheir rendezvous with destiny.

Sheriff Applewhite tried to persuade the Board of Supervisors torescind the “public” aspect of their order and allow the hanging totake place inside the jail yard before a restricted audience.However, the supervisors felt public exposure of the event mighthave a deterrent effect on the more frisky members of the county’spopulation, and furthermore, it wouldn’t hurt the popularity of thesupervisors at the next election.

The sheriff hurriedly constructed the scaffold in the center ofthe courthouse lawn where it would afford a clear view from mostdirections. On the night before the execution, the Methodistpastor, Rev. C. W. Crisler, met with the prisoner in his cell andreported that Sasser had been converted and that he had baptizedhim in his cell. Sasser had been held in the Hinds County jail andwas transported to Brookhaven on the day before the executionarriving at 6 a.m., heavily guarded. When the fateful day arrived,some 7,000 public spirited folks came to view the free, grislyentertainment.

The scaffold was surrounded by a barbed wire fence some 60 feetsquare. Inside the enclosure were admitted the supervisors, Dr.Butler, county health doctor, several other physicians, ministersand members of the press while a huge throng surged against theenclosure. Sasser appeared just before two o’clock p.m. manacled,but neat and freshly shaved except for his mustache and wearing anew blue suit.

The Rev. Crisler and Rev. R. Z. Germany united in singing astanza, “Oh, How I Love Jesus,” then Sheriff Applewhite announcedthat the condemned man desired to make a statement. No introductionwas necessary. The crown hushed and moved closer to hear everyword.

Sasser spoke and rambled on for nearly an hour, praising hisfriends and the sheriff and others who had been kind to him. Heraved against his enemies, especially the star witness, Prichard,and the editor of the paper who had lambasted him repeatedly in thepaper. He seemed to soften for a moment with assurance offorgiveness and hoped he would meet the editor in “The Sweet Byeand Bye.”

He expressed a strong regard for his family and boasted that hehad never mistreated his wife nor struck one of his children andhad never ridden his horse into the house and hitched him to thebed post, like some people do.

In the crowd was Frank H. Hartman Sr., who had a running feudwith Sasser, the cause of which no one seemed to know. According toan account by Oscar Hartman Jr., a grandson, as published in GilHoffman’s “Dummy Lines Through the Longleaf” book, Sasserspotted Hartman in the mob and called out to him,”You better go andlook after your mill, Hartman, I believe it’s burning from all fourcorners about now.” A thin plume of black smoke could be seenrising over the southwest horizon at the time. Undaunted, Hartmanshouted back,”Let the damn mill burn, I’m going to stay here andwatch you take your last jerk!” Which he did, and his mill wasdestroyed by fire, undoubtedly by Sasser’s last viciousconspiracy.

Then Sasser began to taper off in his remarks, magnanimouslyforgiving everyone in the audience. Then, as most good speakers do,he asked if there were any questions. He wasn’t prepared for thestraight forward query that shot back at him loud and clear, “Didyou kill Tom Lard?”

Sasser appeared rattled and stammered, “I’ve already statedthat. I believe that is all I want to say.”

The ministers sang another hymn, “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” andSheriff Applewhite adjusted the noose around Sasser’s neck. Sasserthen shook hands with everyone in the enclosure and bade themfarewell. Applewhite adjusted the black cap over Sasser’s face, andall was ready.

Sheriff Applewhite sprung the trap, and the condemned man’s bodydropped suddenly seven feet through the opening. There was novisible twitch nor movement from the body. It was instant death,and he was promptly pronounced dead. His neck was broken.

The crowd, subdued, slowly and silently filtered away.

You may contact Bob Jones, a local attorney and Brookhavenresident, at 833-7075.