• Dennis McCaslin

Our Arklahoma Heritage: The Execution of Crawford, Lavinia and John Burnett - 1845 -Fayetteville

The fall of 1845 saw a flurry of activity in an area south west of what is now downtown Fayetteville to build a scaffold for a hanging for a murder that occurred in August of that year.

The smell of sawdust and the pounding of nails in the crisp, autumn air heralded the impending death of a married couple for the their part in the murder plot.

Crawford Burnett and Lavinia Sharp, both 25 years of age, were married in Patrick County, Virginia, on December 29, 1810. They went on the have at least four sons and three daughters, but the only ones whose names are known were John, born about 1811, and Minerva, born about 1820.

Sometime after 1820, the family moved to Kentucky, and from there they moved to the Fayetteville area sometime before 1845.

On August 12, 1845, a man living near Fayetteville named Jonathan Sibley (or Selby) was killed, and suspicion almost immediately fell on the Burnett's. They were thought to have killed Selby for his money, since he was known to keep large sums of cash on his property.

A fifteen-year-old daughter of the Burnett's. Minerva, soon confessed that her parents had planned the murder and that her brother, John, had carried it out.

The couple was arrested, but John fled the territory. Crawford and Lavinia were tried in early October of 1845, and on October 11 both were found guilty and sentenced to death for being conspirators before the fact in the murder of Selby.

Crawford Burnett's attorney made a motion before Crawford's trial to be dismissed as his attorney because his client refused to testify against his wife. . This motion was granted. Crawford Burnett, being probably not guilty of the murder itself, sealed his fate by not turning on his spouse.

Among the ranks of the Burnett's illustrious but unsuccessful defense team was Isaac Murphy, who would go on to become a notable pro-Union politician during the Civil War (with a murky part in an infamous massacre of Confederate sympathizers). He subsequently became governor of the state during Reconstruction

During Lavinia's trial, a motion to omit the testimony of one Hardin Sharp, a nephew of Lavinia's, was denied. The motion was brought on behalf of Lavinia's attorney because it was said that Hardin was an accomplice to the murder.

The gallows was built on a hill south of Fayetteville. On November 8, 1845, the condemned man and his wife were marched up the gallows and dropped into eternity in a double hanging that was reportedly attended by almost everybody for miles around.

Shortly after, John Burnett was captured in Missouri and brought back to Arkansas for trial. He, too, was convicted, and on December 26, he was hanged from the same gallows from which his parents had been executed a month and a half earlier.

It was alleged that Hardin Sharp was also involved in the murder, but there is no record of him standing trial in the case.

The hill where the three were hanged became known as Gallows Hill and was supposedly used for executions until the Civil War. After the war, it was taken over by the government and became part of the National Cemetery.

Minerva Burnett is said to have moved to Texas after the trial and hanging. Minerva married Jonas W. Williams two years after the execution of her parents and brother. Hardin Sharp moved to Missouri, married, and lived out his life in the communities of Benton and Jobe.

Lavinia was the first woman legally executed in Arkansas and the only woman executed in Arkansas for 165-years until 2000 when the state executed Christina Riggs, who was convicted of murdering her two children.

There is no record of where any of the Burnett's were buried but it is thought they may have been interred in a potters field not far from the site of their hanging.

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