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Mob Scene outside Birmingham City Jail, February 28, 1890

Mob Scene outside Birmingham City Jail, February 28, 1890.

The Hawes Horror Conclusion: Part Four

—by: Tom Badham


n the cold morning of Friday, February 28, 1890 in a drizzling rain, crowds began to gather at the construction site of the new courthouse and jail next to the old jail. Richard R. Hawes was to be executed at noon there. Both the Birmingham and Atlanta newspapers printed extensive and exhaustive, if perhaps fanciful, accounts of his last hours.

The gallows was situated at the end of Jail Alley, directly behind the jail on the east side of 21st Street midway between Third and Fourth Avenues North. It had been constructed by J. A. Griffin, who happened to have been one of the jurors on the Hawes case. The three-quarter inch rope had been carefully sandpapered and chalked to remove "every loose fiber that might impede friction." It also had been carefully measured for the correct length and tested for strength with heavy sand bags attached.

Inside the courthouse crowds roamed the halls trying to secure passes to witness the hanging. As much as $20 was offered for a pass. Deputies were on hand, some armed with Winchester rifles, to keep the crowds both inside and outside of the courthouse under control.

Perhaps due to the rain and crowds, the proceedings began to run late. At 12:50, Hawes was led from the jail in a new suit donated by the L. Schloss and Co. store to the gallows between Sheriff Smith and Deputy Love. The Rev. Dr. Slaughter gave a short prayer and the clergy left the scaffold.

At 12:55, Deputy Love positioned Hawes properly on the trap door, adjusted the hand cuffs, tied Hawes at the elbows with yellow cords, then tied his legs together at the ankles and knees with red silk cords. The deputy adjusted the noose about Hawes neck and Sheriff Smith placed the black hood over his head. The officers stepped down from the gallows and Smith walked over to the trigger rope which passed through a window in the old jail and shook it to see if the unknown individual who was to spring the trap was in his place.

"One, Two, Three!" shouted Smith. The bolt slipped, the trap doors opened, clashed against the side posts and Richard R. Hawes dropped four and a half feet with his life ending at 12:59.

Even after his execution Hawes kept making news. The long spell of rainy weather caused many railroad track washouts and mud slides around tunnels. Hawes’ coffin which was to be sent to Birmingham Friday morning from Atlanta along with mortuary employee, Frank A. Hilburn, finally arrived in Birmingham late Saturday after a two day, 475 mile rail trip due to detour after detour. Then, when the body and coffin finally returned, Atlanta tried to refuse burial.

In a small, unpublicized service on Monday morning, March 3, a horse drawn hearse carried the casket to the Hawes family plot on the northern side of the Oakland Cemetery close to the Confederate monument. The body was quickly buried with only a few gawkers looking on.

Back in Birmingham on Sunday, March 2, Dr. D. I. Purser, pastor of the First Baptist Church shocked his congregation by suddenly damning Hawes, "The demon who went through the gallows last Friday, went straight to hell! I do not believe that the gallows is a stepping stone to heaven—but it is a spring fall to hell." Dr. Purser had visited Hawes regularly during his incarceration awaiting execution.

Supposedly Hawes gave Reverend Dr. W. C. McCoy, Methodist minister, editor and publisher of the Christian Advocate magazine a 57–page handwritten manuscript while awaiting his execution of what occurred during that fateful weekend. It was to be published with the proceeds used for the education of his son, Willy Hawes. The manuscript or what it contained has never come to light.

As a final bizarre twist, on March 15, two weeks after the execution, a young prostitute, Bessie Enright, who lived in a "roost" on the corner of Third Avenue and 20th Street North, (one block west of the new courthouse and jail) attempted suicide. Throughout the Hawes trial, she had been a daily attendant.

She had sent him many of the flowers he received during the trial and had written to him often and visited him frequently, "often two or three times a day, "following his conviction. She had sent cigars and food to him in jail. As the time for Hawes’ execution drew near, according to news reports, "she grew morose and low spirited, kept to herself a great deal and was disinclined to talk to anyone. "She apparently took an overdose of morphine. After she recovered, she then denied ever being infatuated with him.—End of Series

Bargain Town Ad

Birmingham News, 1971.



History of the JCHA

The Jefferson County Historical Association is dedicated to preserving and publicizing local history through regular meetings, publications and events. Founded in 1975 to promote historical preservation efforts, the society has grown to more than 400 members.

Alice McSpadden Williams

Thomas N. Carruthers, Jr.

George L. Jenkins

Harry E. Bradford

Rucker Agee
Lane Carter
Elizabeth Cooper
Chriss Doss
Paul H. Earle
Robert Montgomery
Margaret Sizemore
George Stewart
J. Morgan Smith
Richard J. Stockham
James F. Sulzby, Jr.
S. Vincent Townsend
Henry Tuttle

Board of Directors:
Cathy Criss Adams
Craig Allen, Jr.
Thomas E. Badham
Jim Bennett
Jeanne B. Bradford
Herbert F. Griffin
Judy S. Haise
Ann B. Hillhouse
Robert R. Kracke
Carolyn H. Reich
Barbara (Babs) Simpson
Edward W. Stevenson, MD
Thomas M. West, Jr.

Past Presidents:
J. Morgan Smith
Margaret D. Sizemore
Elmer C. Thuston, Jr.
Chriss Doss
Betsy Bancroft
Tillman W. Pugh
William A. Price
Thomas M. West, Jr.
Madge D. Jackson
Thad G. Long
Don G. Watkins
Fred M. Jackson III
Thomas O. Caldwell, MD
Charles A. Speir
Craig Allen, Jr.
Edward W. Stevenson, MD
Jim Bennett




Jefferson County Historical Association Books

historic birmingham & jefferson county

Historic Birmingham
and Jefferson County
By James R. Bennett
$45 (member discount)

Elyton Land Company Minute Books

Elyton Land Company
Minute Books, 1871-1895
Edited by Thomas M. West, Jr.

History of Jefferson County Before 1850

History of Jefferson County
Before 1850
By Will F. Franke


About JCHA Publications

The Jefferson County Historical Association offers several books that offer a fresh insight into the rich history of Birmingham and Jefferson County Alabama. They tell the fascinating story of the people and industries that made Jefferson County and Alabama the industrial center of the South.

From first-hand accounts to thoroughly researched narratives, The JCHA publishes books that bring forth rich episodes of Jefferson Counties history in a readable style that engages both scholarly and general audiences.

Ordering JCHA Books

These JCHA books can be purchased at meetings of the Jefferson County Historical Association or ordered by mail.

Click the link below to print or save a book order form. PDF format.

Book Order Form

You may also order by sending your check or money order to the following address along with $5.00 for shipping and taxes (please add $2.00 for each additional book):

The Jefferson County Historical Association
PO Box 130285
Birmingham, AL 35213-0285

Please indicate book title and quantity when ordering.


Other Source Publications Co-Sponsored by the JCHA:

  • Tannehill and the Growth of the Alabama Iron Industry — James R. Bennett, Alabama Historic Ironworks Commission, 1999, available at www.tannehill.org, $45.
  • The Valley and the Hills, an Illustrated History of Birmingham and Jefferson County — Leah Rawls Atkins, Windsor Publications, 1981, available at the Birmingham Public Library Southern History Department, http://www.birminghamarchives.org/ArchivesStore.htm, $30


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