Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Wallace Wilkerson -- An Execution Gone Wrong 1879

I was recently asked if I've ever heard of executions in the Old West that didn't exactly go as planned. While the most famous example of a hanging that didn't end as everyone expected is probably the hanging of  Thomas "Black Jack" Ketchum. 

When Ketchum was hanged, his weight gain and the use of a rope that was too thin, resulted in his head being ripped from his body. Another botched execution, while not as famous as what happened to Ketchum, is what happened to murderer Wallace Wilkerson.

Wallace Wilkerson was born sometime in 1834 in Quincy, Illinois. Because they were Mormons, his family moved to the Territory of Utah when he was eight. By seventeen, young Wallace Wilkerson worked as a local stock tender and horse breaker in and around the town of Payson, Utah. 

Most of this story comes from newspaper articles published in May of 1879. One of those articles states Wallace Wilkerson enlisted in the military and actually served in the Army stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco, California, for two years. While that article says it's so, I can't seem to find a record of his enlistment.

Sometime before 1877, he was married and lived with his wife in Payson, Utah. In 1877, Wallace Wilkerson and his two brothers worked in the nearby town of Homansville, Utah. While today Homansville is a Ghost Town that's little more than rubble about two miles east of the town of Eureka, Homansville developed around a water pumping operation for that area. Some sources say it once had more than one smelting operation, multiple homes, a general store, at least four saloons, and even a post office. Having a post office was a big deal because that means that it was recognized as a legitimate town at one time.

The nearby town known as Ruby Hollow was founded in 1870. It changed its name to Eureka in 1892. By 1910, Eureka had a population of around 3500 residents and was considered the 9th largest city in Utah. Today, with a population of 658, Eureka is referred to as a "Modern-day Ghost Town." 

But really, I sort of question the whole "Modern-day Ghost Town" label because other than a lot of empty old buildings on Main Street, the town still looks very much alive. Frankly, to me, especially based on where I live here in California with a population of 187, a town of 658 has a lot of people. And before you write to ask about my fascination with Eureka, let me explain. I know a Utah historian who said that when Eureka was known as Ruby Hollow, it was known as one of the quietest mining towns in the West in 1881. Imagine that? A "quiet" mining town in the Old West. 

As for a mining town being "quiet," it was anything but quiet in nearby Homansville on June 11, 1877. That was the day that Wallace Wilkerson was in a Homansville saloon owned by James Hightower. It was also the day that Wilkerson executed William Baxter. 

Baxter was a bartender who worked for James Hightower. But on that day, Baxter was not working there when he decided to stop in. Though they really didn't like each other, Wilkerson and Baxter began playing cribbage for money. 

According to reports, there was already bad blood between the two men ever since Baxter once called Wilkerson a "California Mormon" which is said to have been some sort of a slur at the time. Of course, what didn't help was that Baxter once pulled a pistol on Wilkerson during a situation when Baxter tried to stop Wilkerson from getting into a fistfight with another patron in the saloon.

So no, no one was surprised later when it was found out that a quarrel started during the cribbage game. And no, no one was surprised when Baxter accused Wilkerson of cheating. It's said they had a deep-seated hatred for each other. Of course, Wilkerson countered Baxter's accusation by telling Baxter that he was demanding money he didn't win. 

At some point in the argument, Wilkerson is said to have jumped up from his chair and started removing his coat as if preparing for a fistfight. Witnesses to what happened said that Baxter's tone changed, and told Wilkerson that he didn't want trouble. Frankly, that point had passed and Baxter backing down didn't stop Wilkerson from reaching under his vest and pulling out a pistol. 

Wilkerson shot Baxter in the forehead. To make matters even worse, reports say that after Baxter was slumped back in his chair, Wilkerson shot him again. In fact, Wilkerson walked around the table and grabbed Baxter by the hair, turned his head, and then shot him again in the temple before walking out of the saloon.

Those in the saloon who scattered for safety at the first shot had reemerged to attend to Baxter. While some left to put out the "hue and cry" and alert the citizenry, others are said to have guarded Baxter's body until the next morning when a local doctor acting as the coroner examined the body of Baxter.

For you who may have never heard of the "hue and cry," it is defined as "a loud cry calling for the pursuit and capture of a criminal." It was used throughout America for many years. Today, we use one version of the "hue and cry" by getting involved and being the "Eyes and Ears" of law enforcement. 

Back in the day, and as far back as the 13th Century in England, it was a law that ordered that  "anyone, either a constable or a private citizen, who witnessed a crime shall make hue and cry, and that the hue and cry must be kept up against the fleeing criminal from town to town and from county to county until the felon is apprehended and delivered to the sheriff." 

Believe it or not, all able-bodied men, upon hearing the shouts, were legally obliged to assist in the pursuit of the criminal. It was a violation of the law if one did not. That Old English law is believed to have been part of the foundation for our Posse Comitatus laws. As today, as what took place in the Old West, a posse is made up of citizens who are mobilized by a sheriff or other law enforcement official to suppress lawlessness, defend the people, or otherwise protect the place, property, and public welfare. Law enforcement officers today still maintain the authority to summon to his or her assistance any citizen to assist them.

To address what took place, and since there was no organized law enforcement in the area at the time, as was the case throughout the Old West, the local vigilance group was called out and started a search for Wilkerson. That posse didn't take them too long to find him and soon captured Wilkerson without trouble. Soon afterward, they almost immediately took him under guard to the town of Goshen. Acting in the absence of organized law enforcement, they knew that they needed to get him to the town of Goshen to prevent him from being lynched by locals who were friends of Baxter.

The next day when a doctor arrived to act as the coroner, it was a horrible scene of conflicting testimony at first. But then, it became apparent that Baxter was unarmed at the time of the shooting. It also became apparent what Wilkerson did after he initially shot Baxter. His actions were not merely that of someone committed to self-defense. He displayed the sort of malice which is defined as a desire to do evil.

When doing the research on this, I read that there was some speculation that a pistol may have been removed from Baxter's body in an attempt to make things appear worst for Wilkerson who was said to be unliked in the area. Of course, that was only speculation since no weapon was for on Baxter's body.

And in reality, even if Baxter was armed, even if Wilkerson's first shot what taken out of self-defense, the second shot fired by Wilkerson was enough to get him lynched as a mad dog killer. And no, that's not conjecture on my part. That's me simply stating that that's how people at the time looked at such horrid acts of malicious murder. 

Remember, in many places in the Old West, a malicious murder, or malice murder, was a criminal offense committed when a homicide is done with express or implied malice. Wilkerson grabbing the already dead Baxter by the hair, turning his head, and then shooting him again in the temple before walking out of the saloon demonstrated that.

The county grand jury didn't take too long to reach a conclusion. In fact, Wilkerson was indicted and charged with premeditated murder by a county grand jury. Yes, the grand jury realized the fact presented to them and determined that Wilkerson intentionally killed Baxter willfully, deliberately, and with planning. Whether it was Wilkerson's actions at his first shot or his second, the grand jury believed that he planned it in advance and carried it out willfully.

On September 29, 1877, he was arraigned and pleaded not guilty. He was placed in the Utah County jail awaiting his trial which took place at the First District Court of Utah Territory. His trial commenced on November 22. Believe it or not, he was convicted by a jury just two days later. 

On November 28, State District Judge P. H. Emerson stated that he was tired of the "rampant violence" and wanted to make an example of Wilkerson. Emerson sentenced Wilkerson to death and set an execution date of December 14, 1877. 

Before going on, let's take a look at this for a moment. Wilkerson shoots and kills Baxter on June 11, 1877. Wilkerson is held and arraigned on September 29, 1877. His trial commenced on November 22, 1877. Wilkerson is found guilty two days later on November 24, 1877. And as a result was set to be executed on December 14, 1877. From the time of his murderous act to the date of his scheduled execution was almost exactly 6 months. That's something to note as an example of how the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and the right to a "speedy trial," is supposed to work. Six months from committing the act to being convicted of murder, when done right with evidence and witnesses gathered, and with all procedures being above board so as to not declare a mistrial, in my opinion, is unheard of these days. 

As for Wilkerson's execution, as crazy as it may sound, that Utah judge left it up to Wilkerson to choose how he would like to be executed. Wilkerson had to pick between three choices. Hangings and decapitation were legal in the Utah territory at the time. And yes, so was death by firing squad. Wallace Wilkerson chose death by firing squad. 

A stay of execution was issued after Wilkerson's attorney filed an appeal. But, the Supreme Court of Utah Territory denied the appeal in January 1878. Then on January 8, 1879, Wilkerson's attorneys E. D. Hoge and P. L. Williams submitted a writ of error to the Supreme Court of the United States during its October 1878 term. They raised an argument of "cruel and unusual punishment." 

On March 17, 1879, Supreme Court Justice Nathan Clifford delivered the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld the verdict. It read as follows: 

Cruel and unusual punishments are forbidden by the Constitution, but the authorities referred to are quite sufficient to show that the punishment of shooting as a mode of executing the death penalty for the crime of murder in the first degree is not included in that category, within the meaning of the eighth amendment.

—U.S. Supreme Court, Wilkerson v. Utah (March 1879)

According to newspaper reports, on May 15, 1879, "Wallace Wilkerson was taken from Salt Lake City to a jail in Provo. Wilkerson spent his last day together with his wife until half an hour before the execution. He declined visits by the clergy. Wilkerson was brought out of his cell by Sheriff John Turner, a deputy, and U.S. Marshal Shaughnessy. 

Dressed in black with a white felt hat and a cigar which he kept through the execution. Wilkerson gave a farewell speech in which he thanked the law enforcement officers and even shook hands with some of the more than 20 people present in the jail yard in Provo. There were about 200 spectators who gathered outside the jail. 

It's interesting to note that Wilkerson told the crowd that he bore no grudge against anyone except a witness that he accused of committing perjury at his trial. And yes, multiple reports say that some there said later that Wilkerson with his cigar in his mouth thanking everyone for showing up actually appeared to be drunk." But really, who knows if that's true or not.

Wilkerson declined to be blindfolded as he sat on a chair at a corner of the jail yard about 35 feet away from a building with the shooters inside. He insisted that restraints were unnecessary One report said that he stated something to the effect, "I give you my word. I intend to die like a man, looking my executioners right in the eye." 

U.S. Marshal Shaughnessy pinned a small three-inch piece of white paper on Wilkerson's chest. It was meant to be the target on Wilkerson's chest over his heart which the firing squad was supposed to aim at. Later it was reported that after the sheriff pinned it, Wilkerson called, "Aim for my heart, Marshals!"

At approximately noon on May 16, 1879, the marshal rapped on the side wall of the small building where the firing squad sat, and out of small portholes came their rifle barrels. The second rap on the wall signaled the firing squad to fire. 

Whether it was when Wilkerson heard the first rap or a second before the second rap, he stiffened up and through his chest out as he sat up in the chair. He didn't realize that he unwittingly moved the small three-inch piece of white paper target. That created a mess that no one foresaw. 

At that split second of Wilkerson sitting up, the bullets fired had missed actually Wilkerson's heart. One of the bullets shattered his arm. The others slammed into his stomach. Hit but not dead, he leaped off of the chair and started screaming, "Oh, my God! My God! They've missed it!" 

Right then, the four doctors there rushed to Wilkerson's said not really knowing what to do. Were they supposed to treat him and try to stop his bleeding? Were they there to merely watch him bleed out, gasp, and struggle on the ground? Wilkerson convulsed and screamed in pain. The marshal said later that he didn't know if he was going to have to pick him up and place him back on that chair and actually have the firing squad shoot him again. 

It took Wilkerson a very long to bleed out and die. In fact, it was reported that time seemed to slow down before Wallace Wilkerson appeared to have finally died. He was actually pronounced dead a total of 27 minutes after he was shot. The doctors made that determination when he finally stopped squirming on the ground in the dirt. 

While some were horrified at what took place, some of Baxter's friends are said to have voiced their satisfaction to see that Wilkerson didn't die a swift death. Of course, in the end, Wallace Wilkerson's body was picked up off the dirt and carried to a nearby office at the county courthouse. He was washed and placed in a cheap coffin. His body was then turned over to his wife. She supposedly took him to the town of Payson for burial. 

Since a horse pulling a wagon while walking can go 3 to 4 miles per hour, one can only wonder how long that journey must have felt in a wagon going those 16 miles from Provo to Payson.

Tom Correa


  1. This is a very interesting article you have on Wallace Wilkerson. This story needs to be made into a movie or maybe it can be written as a song. In fact, I was thinking about making a movie about this called, "The Execution Of Wallace Wilkerson". But in order to do that, I need to do more research. That will take some time but I promise you in the near future I'll get it done. And I love how during his execution by firing squad in Utah, Wilkerson's last words were, "Oh My God, Oh My God, they missed it! I'll be damned, they missed it! Aim for my heart, you cowards! I'm not afraid to die". Then they shot him again. Usually when the state of Utah holds an execution by firing squad, they will have five guys standing next to each other, the condemned will be strapped into a chair, a little port with sandbags is used, and only one of them gets a blank. I guess the 43-year-old Wallace Wilkerson didn't know this at the time. But he learned quick. By killing William Baxter, he put himself into a deep hole. One that he would eventually be buried in. Moral of the story? Don't bite off more than you can chew. Goodbye, Wally. Enjoy Hell. Because that's where you are right now. And as for saying he "executed" Baxter, it was more like he "murdered" him. But you get the idea. Once again Wally boy, goodbye.

  2. Since you said Wallace Wilkerson was executed in 1879, I will have to correct myself and say he was 45 years old. Sorry bout that. I forgot to do the math. Curse you laptop. LOL.


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