1887 hanging remains Nebraska's most controversial execution

Feb. 7, 2013, 6:30 a.m. ·

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How did Nebraska move from public hangings to lethal injection? The NET News documentary, "...until he is dead. A history of Nebraska's death penalty," shares the stories and trends marking 125 years of capital punishment in the state. The tale of one hanging in Gage County is one of the most amazing.

The reunion of the descendants of William Jackson Marion had all the appearances of a traditional family gathering. Laughing senior citizens and frisky children shared recent news and old photos. A new photo was in the making, with the entire group dressed in costumes evoking the wild west of the 1800s. Just by assembling at the Beatrice Public Library in March of 2012 this instantly became one of the state’s most unique family reunions.

This weekend marked the 125th anniversary of the day William Jackson Marion was hanged for murder.

If the reunion was unique, then the circumstances of Marion’s execution were “sensational,” to borrow the description from a newspaper of the era. There is no case like it in the history of the death penalty in the state of Nebraska. There are few that can rival it in America.

Marion had been buried in an unmarked pauper's grave until his great grandson provided a tombstone. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

The story begins in 1872. Nebraska became a state just four years earlier.

Della Schwindt, Marion’s great, great granddaughter, admits this infamous section of her family tree is a bit problematic.

“From family members we hear he was a gambler and maybe quote, unquote, a womanizer,” said Schwindt, with a smile of a woman who knows some secrets. “Not a real sterling reputation.”

In fact, there is some evidence Marion had two wives. But that is not what got him in trouble.

Working as a freight-hauler by trade, Marion drove a wagon and a team of horses to haul goods from one town to the next. A man could be out on the road for weeks at a time. He and a traveling companion, John Cameron, planned on heading south to Kansas to pick up work with the railroad.

A few days later a body in Cameron’s clothing was found in a gully south of Beatrice, just north outside of the Pawnee Indian Reservation. The man had been shot a couple of times in the head. Suspicion immediately fell on Cameron’s friend, Jack Marion.

“They claimed there was some kind of an altercation about the teams or the wagons or something and John Cameron was shot by Mr. Marion,” Schwindt said.

The case became an obsession for the sheriff in Gage County, Capt. N. Herron, who also served as fire chief. This was decades before scientific crime scene investigation, but the sheriff had his hunch and began an unrelenting ten-year search for the suspected murderer.

The arrest of Marion for an unrelated crime in another state put Marion in the hands of Nebraska law enforcement. A small article announcing the victory appeared on January 5, 1883 in the Gage County Democrat:

“Sheriff Herron returned from Kansas Saturday evening with Jackson Marion, wanted in these parts for the murder of a man in the south part of the county ten years ago. It seems from what we can learn, that Jack has been a bad man for some years.”

The article went on to commend the sheriff for “the persistent manner in which he hunted down criminals generally and this one in particular.”

An update on the Marion case from the OmahaBee, March 7, 1887.

Marion insisted he did not murder Cameron. The two had parted company even before leaving for Kansas.

The trial was a local sensation. This was the first capital murder case in the short history of Gage County. Only a handful of murder trials had occurred in all of Nebraska and at the time of Marion’s day in court only one other man had been executed.

So many people clamored for seats to hear part of the trial testimony, the closing arguments moved to the Opera House to accommodate a bigger audience. One newspaper claimed Beatrice had “a crying demand for blood among the populace.” Sentiment ran against Marion and in favor of hanging.

There were people questioning the quality of the case being brought against Marion from the start.

“In fact there was nothing but circumstantial evidence,” said Schwindt. “There was no real evidence to connect William Jackson Marion to any murder. There was no real evidence that he had shot anyone.”

Newspaper accounts of the trial seem to bear that out. What the jury was allowed to see would likely be deemed sensational and prejudicial in today's courts. What would have been accomplished in a modern trial with photographs and computer models was done with the actual corpse in the Gage County courtroom.

“They brought in the remains of what was believed to be John Cameron,” said Schwindt, having researched her ancestor’s trial. “That’s pretty ghoulish.”

The lead witness for the prosecution was Marion’s mother-in-law, Rachel Warren. A local newspaper described her attitude towards the accused as “vindictive” and that she was driven by “personal malice.”

The mother-in-law had packed John Cameron’s trunk before the journey with Marion began. She claimed she could infer that harm had come to Cameron by comparing what had been in the man’s luggage after the killing had occurred.

“She wasn’t very fond of (Marion), judging by the testimony that was given,” said Schwindt. “Yes, the fact that John Cameron’s clothing was found on the skeleton that was found indicated that it was John Cameron, but there wasn’t any real evidence to prove that that’s who that was.”

A jury sent back a guilty verdict. A huge, leather bound record of the court proceedings for that year is still stored in the basement of the Gage County courthouse. Inside, written in the black ink of a clerk’s fountain pen in cursive script are the words that sealed the fate of William Jackson Marion.

“He shall be taken by the sheriff to the place of execution and be hanged by the neck until dead, dead, dead.”

Legal appeals delayed the execution. There was a second full trial, a repeat of the first, and an appeal to the Nebraska Supreme Court. Marion did not waver in maintaining his innocence throughout.

During the Marion family reunion relatives visited the Gage County History Museum. The staff had laid out documents related to the case, including the death warrant. One recent find was especially poignant. A couple of years ago a portrait of Jack Marion was discovered in the basement of the Beatrice Chamber of Commerce. They didn’t know who it was. The curator at the Museum recognized the name written on the back immediately.

Portrait of Jackson Marion, believed to have been taken the night before his execution. (Photo courtesy of Gage County Historical Society)

A bearded Marion, sits stiff and formal and stares directly into the camera. He is dressed in a thick cloth three-piece suit. Only a glimpse of what appears to be his striped jail shirt underneath the vest hints he is a doomed man. The photo may have been taken the night before his hanging.

An even more remarkable photo of Marion is in the possession of the Nebraska State Historical Society in Lincoln. It’s a wide shot of the gallows with the rope at the ready. A dozen men can be seen standing on or just to the side of the wood platform. A soldier, weapon on his shoulder stands guard. Another man, his expression indifferent, leans against the wall, eyeing the camera. In another context he might appear bored and waiting for his carriage to arrive.

In the middle of them all, moments before his death, Marion stands tall and calm, gripping the lapels of the same suit he wore in the formal portrait the night before.

Lesa Arterburn, the director of the Gage County Museum, said writings about Marion reveal even facing death, he was a model prisoner. She recalls a newspaper story in which he asks his jailers, “‘Will you take me out and show me where I will be hung?’ I want to see how it works.’ They had a sandbag (used to test the rope) and he wanted to see how it dropped through the trap door; how the mechanics worked. He must have been reassured that it would go quickly.”

While it appears much of Beatrice approved of the hanging, one newspaper, the same that had once praised the persistence of Sheriff Herron, now felt the matter was out of hand. An editorial in the Gage County Democrat claimed proceeding with an execution would be “a disgrace to our city that we cannot afford at this time.”

Comparing Marion’s fate to other murder trials in which hanging was never considered as a punishment, the newspaper claimed “it was because of the indignation among the people and the fact that Marion had no friends and no money, that he was selected to satisfy the public wrath.”

Headline from the Omaha Bee, March 26, 1887. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

State law at the time gave responsibility for hangings to local authorities. They commonly were carried out, as was the case in Gage County, near the courthouse.

On a clear, chilly day in late March a crowd gathered to see the first legal hanging in Gage County. It’s a story Della Schwindt and the rest of Marion’s ancestors know well.

“It said in the newspaper article, he enjoyed his last meal with relish. He didn’t seem to be fearful about the outcome. And was led to the gallows,” said Schwindt.

A reporter witnessing the event for the Nebraska State Journal described the scene.

“Marion began in a slow, deliberate though firm voice to speak the last words that would ever escape his lips. ‘You are waiting patiently to hear me make some confession. I’ve made no confession to nobody and I’ve got no confession to make. All I have to say is God help everybody.’”

Moments later the trap door opened and Marion, while still hanging on the rope, was pronounced dead. His body was taken east of town to the Beatrice Cemetery and buried in an unmarked grave.

(Read the front page coverage of Marion's execution day)

Four years later the entire state of Nebraska was shocked to learn the story was not over.

“There was a gentleman who really did not think William Jackson Marion was guilty of what he was accused of,” Schwindt explained. “This person went back to Kansas and found John Cameron. Alive and well. I’m sure that was stunning.”

Headline from the Omaha Bee, August 3, 1891.

The headline in the Beatrice Daily Express proclaimed “The Dead Is Alive!” The paper went on to declare it to be “one of the most remarkable stories in the annals of criminal history.”

For once, the papers may not have exaggerated. It was a case that shook Nebraska’s legal community. Even after two trials and a review by the highest court in Nebraska, the state had still found its way to execute a man for a crime he did not commit.

(Read the front page coverage announcing the discovery of Marion's innocence)

When Marion’s family gathered at the Beatrice Cemetery on the 125th anniversary of the man’s execution, they were not here to honor a criminal. They honored the memory of an innocent man.

Hoping to restore the reputation of an innocent man, Marion's family gathered at his grave to mark the 125th anniversary of his execution. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Standing near the grave last year Marion’s great granddaughter Marilyn Kirk paused and shook her head.

“This man knew that he was facing the death penalty and it just wasn’t the electric chair. It was ‘we’re going to take you out and put a rope around your neck and hang you until you are dead.’ And then he sat in jail for several years knowing that this was his ultimate goal and I’ve been touched by that."

After years without a headstone for Jack Marion, his grandson Elbert Marion made sure a granite marker identified the grave.

That was not enough for Elbert. He made it his life’s work to clear his great grandfather’s name. After years of research and letter writing, he made a direct plea to Governor Bob Kerrey. In 1987 Kerrey signed the official pardon a century after the hanging.

In front of the headstone, with the name MARION carved in gray granite, is a frame covered in plastic where the governor’s pardon reminds any visitors William Jackson Marion was, and is, an innocent man.