Searcy, AR
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The Hanging Tree: Stump stands as reminder of sentences served long ago

By Pat Hambrick
The Daily Citizen
Saturday, March 18, 2006 5:21 PM CST

From left: White County Historical Society members David Dawson, Eddie Best, Leroy Blair, Zelda Dawson, Diann Poe, and Billie Willingham stand in front of the remnants of the hanging tree in Searcy Friday. The last person to be hung from the tree was convicted murderer George W. Carroll in 1886. (Greg Benenati)

The last legal hanging in White County occurred on April 30, 1886, when George W. Carroll was hanged for what the Arkansas Gazette, in its May 1, 1886 edition, called the “fiendish” murder of his wife, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Pool Carroll.

The tree used as the hanging tree, once surrounded by gallows, is now nothing more than an unsightly stump near the Searcy Municipal Pool.

“That piece of history is about gone,” said Buddy Phillips of Searcy.

The story behind Lizzie’s murder, as told by the Arkansas Gazette at the time, is one of an illicit romance that lead to a brutal murder.

In February 1886, George Carroll lived on a small farm near Clay with his wife, his two children and his half-brother’s widow, Viney Tidwell.

The Arkansas Gazette story characterized Carroll as being of a “poorer class of farmers” and said the family was considered “shiftless.”

Carroll and Tidwell were said to have been “fond of each other,” and Tidwell assisted Carroll on the farm while his wife performed the housework. Tidwell was also said to have often accompanied Carroll to dances while his wife remained at home.

“The intimacy between the two no doubt became illicit and was the cause of the horrible death of the wife,” the unnamed Arkansas Gazette writer stated.

Shannon Turley, in the 1982 White County Heritage, recounted the story she had heard growing up in Clay, on a farm near where the murder took place. In her account, the name is spelled ‘Carrol.’

Tidwell told Carroll some weeks before the murder that she suspected she was “of child” and demanded that he tell his wife. Carroll agreed, fearing that Tidwell would tell her father and brother of her condition, according to Turley’s account.

The actual murder was apparently ‘Plan B.’ Carroll, who was building a chimney, had originally planned to kill his wife the day before. He told Tidwell that he would persuade his wife to climb up the ladder, would push her off and drop a heavy stone on her, making it appear that the fall was an accident. However, a neighbor decided to drop by to help Carroll build his chimney and thwarted his plan, Turley recounted.

Carroll told Tidwell that evening that he intended to put his wife in the well the next morning, Turley said.

On the morning of Feb. 20, 1885, the family members woke early and had a large breakfast by candlelight.

“After breakfast, George went outside and, after a while, called to his wife to draw up the water. When Lizzie went outside, Viney jumped on the bed and covered her ears to keep from hearing the loud cries she expected. After a while, George came inside and told Viney that the job was finished. He told her not to alarm the neighbors until he had gotten away from the house and had begun splitting rails. Viney obeyed him,” Turley said.

However, a neighbor, Robert Boggs, was planting corn in his garden that morning, heard Lizzie’s screams, threw down his hoe and ran to the Carroll house, where he found Tidwell “buried in a pillow, crying her eyes out. When he asked her what was wrong, she told him the whole story,” Turley said.

Boggs notified the constable, Tom Hardcastle, and Carroll admitted to pushing his wife into the well. However, he said that when his wife tried to climb out, he became frightened and fled, and he swore that Tidwell was the one who had held Lizzie’s head under the water until she drowned, according to Turley’s account.

“The body bore evidence of a deadly struggle. The clothing was torn and the top of the head badly bruised,” according to the Arkansas Gazette account, which also reported that the water reached within 3 feet of the surface of the well and that Carroll had drowned his wife by holding her head underwater with a stick.

Both Carroll and Tidwell were arrested and charged with the murder, but Tidwell turned state’s evidence, testified against Carroll, and the charges against her were dismissed. Carroll was found guilty of the murder and was sentenced to hang in September 1885. An appeal was taken to the (Arkansas) Supreme Court and “a respite granted until October 16. The case was not finally disposed of until five weeks ago, when the governor refused commutation,” according to the Arkansas Gazette account.

The same account said Carroll “made a full confession on the scaffold, saying that he was influenced by Viney Tidwell to do the deed but that he now had forgiveness. He made a written confession to Rev. E. A. Garrison Tuesday morning, though it was not given to the press until [May 1, 1886].”

Turley reported that nearly 3,000 people attended the hanging.

“As George rode by the crowd, sitting on his own coffin, he waved to the people and seemed to be at peace with God … George Carrol never knew that he had made history by being the last man hanged in White County,” Turley reported.

Eddie Best, a member of White County Historical Society, said that Mary (Rice) Reynolds told him a few years ago that her grandmother witnessed the hanging as a seven-year-old girl. Reynolds is a WCHS member who lives in North Little Rock.

“Here’s what Mary told me: ‘When I was young, my grandmother told about going to a hanging when she was a little girl … [Grandmother] was Ida Belle Doss Price, born in 1881. She lived at Lebanon,” Best said. “She said an aunt took her to see this; I think she said the man had murdered his wife. The aunt was very eager to see him hanged, and she kept shouting to let her up there and she would pull the rope.’”

As with any recollections of events that happened in the distant past, there are variations and additions to the story. Publisher W. Ewing Orr reported in the Judsonia White County Record on Aug. 19, 1976 that he had talked to Martha Wright of Judsonia, then 89, who was a young child in Clay “when the Carroll story was fresh in the minds of all the little hamlet’s citizens.” However, in that story, he used the name Troy Carroll rather than George Carroll.

Orr reported that Wright told him that Tidwell herself was almost lynched. Wright said that within hours after Carroll’s body was cut down from the scaffold near Gin Creek, a man knocked at Wright’s father’s door in Clay.

“‘Doctor,’ he said, ‘this community isn’t going to stand for Viney Tidwell getting off free. She should have been with Troy on that scaffold. We’re going to take care of that tonight. You’ve got just the right tree on your land. Will you help us?’ The doctor told the man that he would have no part in a lynching. As the fellow rode away, those in the house could see a new rope coiled on his saddle. But they never caught Viney. Someone had told her, and she had made a fast exit from Clay. They tracked her as far as Newport, but Viney was never heard from again,” Orr reported.

The old oak tree saw at least one hanging, sheltered generations of children at the municipal pool and, soon, even the remaining stump will vanish from sight, leaving only a few fading photographs and fading memories of its long and varied history.

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