Morganton and its Surroundings Sixty Years Ago, excerpt, by Silas McDowell, c. 1877, manuscript (transcribed by Ann Walker, ©2009)
- ...It was perhaps more than a month before Mrs McEntire had an opportunity for a long conversation, and then she commenced the second sad story thus—
Twenty two years ago my husband was Sheriff of Burke county, and kept the jail, and at that time the most common crime was horse stealing, and hence the law against that crime was vigorous, hanging for the first offense, and sometimes on very slight testimony. My story is based on an instant in point. Sometime in the month of July there was brought to Jail a handsome and well grown youth in his 18th year named John Handricks [sic]. In a few days he was followed by his mother, a noble looking old lady named Elizabeth Handricks, who continued with him 'til his death, for he was hanged in a few weeks afterward. Their prior history was this– Elizabeth had married, during the Revolutionary war, a celebrated tory leader named James Handricks, who was afterward killed, leaving Elizabeth and her only child John, in one of the middle Districts of South Carolina. But, her neighbors were Whigs, and at school John was taunted with the fact of his father being a Tory. This caused his mother to sell out and locate on the head of North Pacolet near the mountains, where was a neighborhood of respectable men who had given support to King George of England, and, in this secluded spot Elizabeth and John had lived up to his 18th year, when he parted from his mother for the first time, and visited an uncle in Wilkes county. The first night on his return home his horse died, and he then prosecuted his way on foot, but what he expected to be his last days travail, and that would bring him to his mother, night overtook him when he was full eight miles short of home, and far away from any residence. Foot-sore and exhausted he sank to rest under the spreading boughs of a large pine tree and soon fell asleep, and perchance to dream of his mother. At break of day he awoke and resumed his journey. After sunrise he was overtaken by a gentlemanly looking stranger mounted on a fine horse, who addressed him thus—"Young man, you appear to be tired walking: I assure you that I am tired rideing [sic]; suppose you mount my horse a while." The young man thankfully complied, and the stranger went on to say that he "could on foot cut off a bend in the road, but for him to wait at the fork of the road if he reached there first." Reaching the designated point the young man stopped, and soon saw a company of men on horseback who rode up and arrested him as a horse thief, and brought him to Burke Jail, and his mother learning the fact immediately followed, and continued with her son up to his execution, the date of which, and that of his trial can be known by reference to the records of the criminal docket of the Superior court of Burke county which read thus—
State of North Carolina Morgan District
Superior court of law, September ten 1794
Present and presiding the Honorable Samuel Ash and John Williams
State versus John Handricks
Arraigned and pleads Not Guilty Indictment Horse stealing
Jury impanneld [sic] and sworn.
The jury find the prisoner at the bar John Handricks guilty of the felony and horsestealing whereof he stands charge, as in the bill of indictment.
State versus John Handricks
John Handricks was at this Term found guilty of Horse stealing on a bill of Indictment for said offence, was this morning called to the bar to receive the judgment of the court, and it being demanded of him why sentence of death shall not be pronounced against him sayeth nothing; it is therefore commanded by the court that the said John Handricks be taken from whence he came, and from thence to the place of execution and that he be hanged by the neck until he be dead; and it is ordered by the court that the Sheriff of Burke county carry this sentence into execution on Friday the 26th instant, betwixt the hours of 12 and 5 o'clock.
The Indictment is ____ on the 1st day of August 1794, and the execution took place on the 26th of the _____ month_ a summary proceeding, surely. John Haywood was Pros Attorney.
When brought to the gallows the youth—(& he was a handsome young man) in a manly voice made a short address in substance as follows— "Citizens of Burke county, there are many of you here this day to see my execution—to see as you suppose, a criminal render up his life to atone for a breach of law. It is in vain that I reiterate that I am innocent of the charge, because a jury of my country, upon circumstantial evidence, have honestly, no doubt, pronounced that I am guilty of Horse stealing. God's providings are mysterious: but I die innocent of the charge. Sheriff McEntire a word to you, and I will be through. You have been kind to me, and also to my mother. God bless you. Now do your duty, and do it quick, but O: it will kill my poor mother, I know it will!" There were now not a dry cheek on the ground save that of his mother; she was as rigid in feature as a statue and as tearless, and to quote from an ancient poet—
"She looked like Niobe in her grief
Where sighs nor tears could give relief."
She embraced her son with the piercing exclamation—"Fare well for a while my unfortunate son!" And like a statue she stood by and saw life depart—the last quiver of his manly limbs: and when in his rude coffin she tried to compose his distorted features and smoothe the hair on his manly forehead, and then imprinted a mother's kiss and rose from her knees with simple words. "My work on Earth is finished." All this with tone so coolly and businesslike that the murmur ran through the crowd—"That woman sure lacks a mother's heart!"
Was this the case? We will see.
I pressed her to leave the ground and go home with me; but she shook her head and answered_ "Mrs McEntire you mean well, but there is no ___ in I—my heart is broken:" and gathering her mantle around her, she hurried through the crowd.
That evening, two miles South of Morganton near the Rutherford road a woman was seen, and she seemed to be asleep, reposeing [sic] on her mantle: on approaching her she was discovered to be Elizabeth Handricks—She was dead! Her grave yet marks the spot where she died, while superstition makes the school boy's heart beat quick if darkness should overtake him before he passes that lonely grave.
Ten years after Handricks' execution a celebrated thief and counterfitter [sic] met Justice, and was hanged. He confessed to having been the man who placed John Handricks on a horse that he had stolen when he found himself pursued. I impulsively exclaimed—"John Handricks' name shall be redeemed!"
I went, immediately, to the clerks office and procured the above copy from the record of his trial. But my landlady remonstrated thus—"McDowell where is the use of such a thing? John Handricks' body has lain quietly in its grave for twenty two years and [most of remaining text is illegible] ….