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Last hanging in Garrard happened in 1882

August 11, 2003|RICHARD C. BROWN

County courthouses in Kentucky serve numerous purposes. They are symbols of unity for the county's people and are homes for the people's government. From the beginning they have been towers of justice, sheltering courts where trials are held. Of these trials, those for the ultimate crime of murder have been the most dramatic.

It was at the Garrard County courthouse in 1882 in Lancaster that William M. Austin was tried for the 1882 murder of his aunt Betsy Bland. The murder, the trial, the verdict and the sentence are still within the collective memory of Garrard County citizens.

A reporter described Austin at his trial as a "good looking fellow, about 5 feet, 11 inches tall, 150 pounds in weight and strongly built." Twenty-five years old at the time, Austin had lived for most of his life with his father, mother and brothers, a respected farm family.

At some point in this 25 years, however, Austin had developed a bad name for himself. He often drank too much and became increasingly involved in quarrels that ended in fights. Moreover, there were rumors of his involvement in petty crimes. Finally his father gave him notice to find another home.

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Austin's great aunt, Betsy Bland, offered to take her nephew in. She had never married, but lived with her widower brother, Joe Bland, in a small farm house two miles west of Lancaster. Austin did chores on the little farm and made himself generally useful. Nevertheless, his outside troubles continued until he was indicted for some lawlessness for which he would be required to pay fines.

One January day Joe Bland rode into Lancaster. He met up with neighbors as he was returning home. They told Bland they had seen Austin, who told them Aunt Betsy had been murdered so they were riding into Lancaster to report the crime.

Bland hurried home as fast as his horse could take him. As he entered his front door he saw the lifeless body of his aged sister stretched out on the floor. A bloody ax leaned against a chair. There was ample evidence of its use. The left side of Aunt Betsy's head had been split open and there were pools of blood on the carpet. Papers from a bureau drawer, in which it was believed Betsy Bland kept her money, were scattered around the room.

Blood stains were on his pants

Bland had passed his nephew in the front yard, sobbing and moaning incoherently. When Austin came inside, he knelt beside the corpse and cried out, "Oh, Aunt Betsy, I shall die with you!" Then someone noticed blood stains on Austin's pants and called his attention to them. "When I first found Aunt Betsy she was still alive," the nephew explained, "she threw the blood on me in her dying agonies."

This was an unlikely explanation because it was clear from her wounds that Aunt Betsy had died instantly. When Garrard County Sheriff J.M. Higginbotham arrived, further investigation added to the evidence pointing to Austin. He was arrested and taken to Lancaster. There he was locked in a cell in the Garrard County jail, across the street from the county courthouse.

A trial date was set for Feb. 13. On that day Austin walked to the courthouse accompanied by Ben Burdette, the attorney secured for his defense by his father and two of his three brothers. In the Circuit Court room presiding judge M.H. Owsley arraigned the defendant who answered "not guilty" to the indictment for murder.

It took two days to select a 12-man jury but on the morning of Feb. 16, court convened at 9 a.m. Presentation of evidence took until noon. After a recess of two hours, the trial continued with the summations of prosecuting attorney George Denny and defense attorney Ben Burdette. Then the jury retired to consider the verdict.

The jury returned after a reasonable time. B.F. Doty, acting as foreman, announced: "We, the jury find William Austin guilty of murder and fix his punishment as death." Whereupon, the convicted murderer was returned to jail to await his sentence.

Two days later Austin was brought back into court. Judge Owsley asked if he had any legal reason to show why judgment should not be pronounced against him. None being offered, Owsley ordered Austin taken back to the Garrard County jail and "there safely kept until the 18th day of April." On that day "between the hours of sunrise and sunset the sheriff of Garrard County shall hang him by the neck until dead."

Attorney Burdette carried the case to the Kentucky Court of Appeals on the grounds of technical errors committed. There the judgment of the Circuit Court was upheld. Nevertheless, this delayed the date of execution from April 18 to Oct. 13. During all this time, Austin steadfastly denied having anything to do with the murder of his aunt.

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