Written by Dr. Timothy D. Hudson
No execution had occurred in Union Parish for two decades prior to 1878. Unfortunately, a particularly vicious and bloody murder occurred near Oakland in late 1877 that would end that trend. The aftermath of these events created sensational headlines across Louisiana and the nation.
Late one night in the latter portion of 1877, someone brutally attacked Violet Simons, a 27-year old black woman living near Oakland. After knocking her in the head with a fence rail, they placed a knife at her forehead and drove it into her brain with a piece of wood. Jesse Walker, about the same age as Violet and her cousin, was arrested for the crime. Although the evidence against him was circumstantial, he confessed to her murder after his arrest, and the Union Parish District Court convicted him of Violet’s murder on January 19th.
The viciousness of Violet’s murder created excitement among the African-Americans living in the Oakland area. After Walker’s conviction, a group of black men from the Oakland region decided to take Walker from the Farmerville jail and extract their own brand of vengeance on him, aiming to lynch Walker for killing Violet. As they rode into Farmerville on horseback one evening, the lone deputy sheriff guarding the jail, armed with a single shotgun, stood down the mob, convincing them to disperse and leave town.
On April 12th, the District Court sentenced Jesse Walker to be hung on May 24th, between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., assuming that Gov. Francis T. Nichols signed the death warrant. Nichols had assumed office the previous year and seemed determined to end Louisiana’s stigma as a haven for criminals by firmly enacting justice. He signed Walker’s death warrant on April 30th.
On the evening of May 23rd, the night before Walker’s scheduled execution, several town officials visited Jesse in his cell in the Farmerville jail. The party consisted of District Court Judge William R. Rutland, Union Parish Sheriff Benjamin F. Pleasant, Capt. John M. Rabun, Rev. Parvin, and a reporter from a New Orleans newspaper. The group began by expressing their sympathy and informing him that they had come to get any last minute words he might have to record. Walker began by recanting his confession that resulted in his conviction: “I know I must die to-morrow. They are punishing me for something I did not do. God knows I am as innocent as the angels of Heaven, and I do not know who killed Violet…” Walker said that the group who arrested him the night of Violet’s murder “put a chain around my neck and tried to get me to confess.” Walker claimed that they coerced another man to confess and implicate him. He said that John Simmons told him if he confessed, they would turn him loose. Walker said, “I would have said anything to get loose, and told them I killed Violet with a stick.”
Walker told his visitors, “I know you all cannot save me, and there is no use in lying about it, but God knows I am innocent. I have been trying to prepare to die. The ministers have been instructing me and praying for me, I think I am prepared to meet my Maker.” Rev. Parvin then prayed, the group left Walker in his cell.
On the morning of Jesse’s scheduled execution day, a crowd from throughout the parish and surrounding ones formed early, and by noon, it had risen to three thousand, the vast majority African-Americans. Sheriff Pleasant took precautions to preserve order, closing all saloons and swearing in forty deputies to patrol the crowded streets. At noon, the same group of men from the previous night again visited Jesse, together with his sister. The reporter said the meeting between “…the doomed man and his sister was trying. She told him how often she had talked to him and prayed for him…He inquired after his kinfolks, and gave instructions in reference to his burial. After giving his ring to his sister, he bade her good-by…”
At 12:50 p.m., Jesse ascended the scaffold platform, erected some two hundred yards from the jail. Rev. Britt offered a prayer, “…and the sobs and groans of women and children were heard from every direction.” Sheriff Pleasant then addressed the crowd, appealing for order. The sheriff told Walker he could have fifteen or twenty minutes to give his last statement, if he so wished. Walker stepped forward and addressed the crowd:
“None but me and my God knows I am innocent. If the man who prosecuted me would have told the truth I think he would have known something about the killing of Violet. I do not blame my lawyer; I blame the jury; they have believed the prosecution and have murdered me. I tried to get Mr. Ellis; if he had defended me I would have been acquitted; but I do not blame him; I do not blame the Sheriff or jailor, or the men who built the gallows.
I have been wicked but have been praying for a week. I expect to be in heaven in less than half an hour. I want all my friends to pray for me as I have prayed for myself. I advise all young people to quit going to parties and serve the Lord. I have never killed anyone, but I had had my pistol when Simmons accused me of killing Violet and arrested me, I would have killed him, but I thank God I did not for then I would have never entered into the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Walker then called for Prince Jones, a young black man, to pray for him. Jones “ascended the platform and prayed fervently for the doomed man. The lips of the prisoner moved as in prayer, and tears came into his eyes.” Judge Rutland said that Jones “sent up a pathetic and stirring appeal in his behalf.” Sheriff Pleasant then read the death warrant, “during which time the prisoner regained his self-possession.” At 1:40 p.m., the attendants placed the cover over Walker’s head, the executioner cut the rope, the trap door fell open, and “Jesse Walker was no more.” He was pronounced dead after hanging for about twenty minutes, and his body was released to his father for burial.
Allowing a condemned criminal to offer a final public statement prior to execution had become the custom in Louisiana, but Jesse’s final words sparked controversy in the statewide media due to his vigorous protestations of innocence and presumption of his entrance into heaven in the minutes before his death. Although convicted in District Court of murder, Walker’s claims caused some to wonder if indeed an innocent man had been killed for a crime he did not commit. Despite Walker’s claims, Judge William R. Rutland remained convinced of his guilt. The day after the execution, the judge wrote “The prisoner was…of strong physique, good sense and strong will, and during the time he was on the scaffold never winced nor showed the least agitation; showing himself capable of committing any crime.”
The impact of Jesse Walker’s execution lingered among Union Parish’s black community into the summer. The gallows towering above Farmerville’s streets stood as a stark reminder of what had taken place, and the memories of his hanging caused them to stay in after dark. Farmerville’s newspaper editor wrote that since Walker’s execution, “the streets of Farmerville at night are never visited” by any black people. In that superstitious age, numerous witnesses reported that Walker’s ghost appears on the gallows every night. In mid-June, the newspaper reported that Prince Jones, the man who gave the last prayer before the trap door and rope sent Walker into eternity, “has gone into fits.” In an attempt to calm the fears of the local population, Sheriff Pleasant ordered the gallows removed in June.
Dr. Timothy D. Hudson is the mathematics department head at Southeastern Louisiana University and an avid historian on Union Parish. Dr. Hudson is a Union Parish native and graduate of Farmerville High School.