CALDWELL PARISH, La. - 76 years ago this month, the last public hangings in Louisiana, four in one day, took place in Caldwell Parish. The story is dramatic from the very beginning, starting with a mass escape from an Arkansas prison. Now, a former Caldwell Parish sheriff is drawing attention to the matter. Steve May says, he may even write a book.
Among the unanswered questions regarding the last hangings in Louisiana is whether they were all justified. Former Caldwell Parish Sheriff Steve May says all four inmates were hung for something one of them, or possibly none of them, had done.
It was September, 1940. Thirty-six inmates escaped from Cummins Unit prison in Arkansas. A few of them, reportedly headed for Mexico, never made it past Louisiana.
They took three Rayville High School students hostage. After their getaway car broke down near Columbia, they were spotted by a posse. Local auto dealer Frank Gartman, acting as the posse’s spokesman, asked the inmates to surrender. Instead, there was an exchange of gunfire. Gartman was killed. “There's always been a rumor that it was friendly fire that killed Mr. Gartman, somebody from the posse shot him by accident,” May said.
The student hostages were finally released, unharmed. May said, “These guys were some bad guys, but they did treat the teenagers with respect.”
The justice system moved swiftly in those times. Months later, William Meharg, Floyd Boyce, William Heard and William Landers, soon became the last people executed by hanging in Louisiana. One by one, they were marched up the thirteen steps to the gallows.
The four inmates were hung on March 7, 1941. It was just six months after they were captured. “One of them, was over twelve minutes he hung there, til his heart quit beating,” May said.
Nearly eight decades later, mystery still surrounds the circumstances of what really happened during that September stand-off. May said, “After all this searching, I cannot find the transcripts to the trial, to really tell us what happened in the trial, the witnesses, what they said, the officers involved. But they’re gone, missing, nobody knows where the transcripts are at.”
In their last words, the inmates sent out a warning to others. Among their statements: “There is no way to win in crime” and “Live clean and honest and turn to God for help.”
It’s wise advice to this day, even with changing crimes and changing criminals. May said, “Now they were bad guys, but had bootleggers back then. But it's just different now. We’ve got the dopers now, where we had the bootleggers back then.”
The wheels of justice turn slower now. But, this empty hanging cell atop the Caldwell Parish Courthouse remains as a reminder of a past that, perhaps, still holds secrets.
Just months after the Caldwell hangings, Louisiana adopted the electric chair as the new method of execution.
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