Stone Gardens: John Arthur Tillman - The last man executed by hanging in Arkansas
The last person executed by hanging in the state of Arkansas committed his crime, was put on trial and met his final fate all within a few mile radius in Logan County, but John Arthur Tillman insisted upon his innocence until the day they put him in his grave.
The year was 1913, and 22-year-old Tillman was accused of the heinous murder of his girlfriend, 19-year-old Amanda Stephens. One-hundred and seven years later, questions still remain about the guilt or innocence of the man who was laid to rest in the Graves Cemetery in the Delaware Community on what is now State Highway 22 near the Logan/Pope County Line.
According to the Encylopedia of Arkansas, John Arthur Tillman was born in January 1891, the third oldest of nine children of John Franklin Tillman, a farmer and cattle breeder, and Lennie Belle Townsell Tillman of Delaware (Logan County).
His arrest in 1913 was connected to the March 10 disappearance of Amanda Stephens, age nineteen, who lived north of Delaware. Friends and neighbors said that the two were “seeing each other,” and Stephens left behind a note pinned to her pillow suggesting that she was running away.
According to later newspaper reports, she had told friends that she was going dancing with Tillman. Stephens’s father found an unsigned note in the family mailbox arranging a meeting with his daughter. When she did not return home, he sought and received a warrant for the arrest of Tillman, charging him with “seduction.”
On March 18, 1913, Stephens was found dead in a well on the property of Ambrose Johnson. The Johnsons had been out of the area for several days, and after returning, they noticed damage to the exterior of the well. They also said that they saw a man, whom they later identified as Tillman, sneaking up to the well and looking inside.
The well had been filled with what was described as “a wagonload of rocks.” With the help of neighbors, Johnson removed the rocks, uncovering the corpse of Stephens. She had a bullet hole through her head and a stone tied to her neck with a telephone wire.
An autopsy was conducted, revealing that Stephens was four months pregnant.
Suspicion centered upon Tillman as both the father of the unborn child and the murderer of Stephens. Investigators at the time concluded that Stephens had been shot in the head from above with a .22 caliber weapon; evidence found in a cabin ten feet from the well identified it as the murder site.
Tillman’s mother informed the authorities that, when he left home the night of March 10, he had taken a .22 caliber rifle with him.
Tillman had fled the area to hide at an uncle’s house following the initial warrant for his arrest for “seduction.” When he was first seized on suspicion of murder, he was held overnight at that same uncle’s house in Clarksville, but Tillman escaped through a window.
Several days later, Sheriff Joel Cook traveled to Fort Smith to receive a prisoner thought to be Tillman. Although the prisoner had been misidentified, Cook spotted Tillman in Fort Smith and arrested him.
Tillman was tried twice for the murder: the first trial, which began on August 27, 1913, ended with a split decision (or hung jury), but the second ended on November 1 with his conviction and sentencing.
After his trial and sentencing, Tillman escaped again, this time jumping from a moving train while being transported from Paris (Logan County) to the state penitentiary in Little Rock (Pulaski County); he was recaptured ten hours later, hobbled by two sprained ankles.
Judge Jeptha Evans originally scheduled the hanging for March 10, 1914, the anniversary of Stephens’s murder, but attempts to appeal the sentence postponed the hanging until July.
Meanwhile, state law mandated that all future criminals sentenced to death would be executed by electric chair rather than by hanging.
While this law had been passed by the state legislature in February 1913, it could not be implemented until the “execution room” had been constructed at the state penitentiary in Little Rock.
The first execution by electrocution took place on September 5, 1913; since Tillman’s trial had begun before that date, Evans was permitted to choose between hanging and electrocution as a means of execution.
Up until the date of his execution, Tillman’s family continued to seek a new trial or a commutation of his sentence.
Arkansas Governor George Washington Hays, however, refused to commute the sentence, saying that “the crime was a most atrocious one and if the defendant was innocent, he should not be compelled to spend the rest of his days behind prison walls for a crime committed by some other man, and if he was guilty, no punishment would be too great for him.”
A large crowd of people gathered in Paris for the hanging, scheduled for July 15, 1914. The sheriff had his men under instructions to shoot anyone who might get close to the jail because of rumors that Tillman would be rescued by an armed party.
One rumor, reported in the Arkansas Gazette, was that Tillman’s father had recently purchased a high-powered rifle and ammunition, not to rescue his son but to assassinate him in order to spare him the ordeal of hanging.
Tillman was also found to have taken a large dose of morphine the day of the hanging, leading some researchers to speculate that he sought to die by poisoning rather than by hanging.
Talking with reporters and with local clergy prior to the hanging, Tillman continued to proclaim his innocence, accusing Earl Bolden, a relative of Stephens, of being the guilty party. Later reports have also raised questions about Tillman’s guilt. Friends of Tillman, as well as both Tillman’s father and Green Stephens, the victim’s father, were named as possible suspects.
In 1999, a play based loosely on Tillman’s life and execution, Marked Tree by Coby Goss, premiered in Chicago.
The Logan County jail where Tillman was held and hanged has now become the Logan County Museum.
Tillman was buried in Graves Cemetery just a stones throws from the county border between Logan and Pope Counties.