A Hanging Story Involving William Huffman Higdon

Major William Huffman Higdon

Major William Huffman Higdon was elected sheriff of Macon County,

North Carolina in 1888; he served one term of two years. 

This photograph is reprinted with permission from Jessie Wilkie’s book: 

Descendents of Joseph Huffman Higdon and Margaret Matilda Berry Higdon

This Hanging Dreaded by Macon Sheriff in 80’s

The time of this story is one morning in the 1880’s. The place, the jail in Franklin.

The chief characters, Major William H. Higdon, "high sheriff" of Macon County, and Willie McMahan, convicted of murder in the first degree and sentenced to be hanged.

This was the day for the hanging.

A vast throng milled about the scaffold, just outside the jail; Willie McMahan could see the scaffold from his window in the jail - could see it, no doubt, after that first chilling glimpse, no matter how tightly he closed his eyes.

The crowd watched in excited anticipation as Sheriff Higdon entered the jail. He entered McMahan's cell. He snapped the handsome handcuffs on the doomed man's wrists.

They were the same handcuffs he had snapped on those wrists so many times, for Willie McMahan had been handcuffed each time the sheriff had led him from the jail to the courthouse and back again during McMahan's trial.

They are the same handcuffs that are now in the possession of John Higdon1, grandson of the sheriff of that day. The story, told by John Higdon, is vouched for by John Dean and E. J. Carpenter. Mr. Dean remembers the events themselves; Mr. Carpenter remembers the story as it came from the lips of the late Byard Angel, widely known authority on local history.

Higdon, Dean, and Carpenter all agree on the main points of the story, though some minor details inevitably have been lost during the three quarters of a century that has hurried by since that excitement-packed morning in the then tiny village of Franklin.

McMahan, it is explained, was not a Macon County man, nor had the murder occurred in this county, McMahan had killed a man named Buchanan, just across the line in Jackson County.

There feeling against the killer had run high, and the trial had been ordered moved to Macon. The killer had been tried, convicted of murder in the first degree, and sentenced to hang.

And this was the day for the hanging. What McMahan's emotions were as he heard the handcuffs click, and realized that it was to be the last time, nobody knows. But Major Higdon later told what his were. He was sick at the stomach.

He had never killed a man. He didn't want to kill a man now.

He found this duty of a sheriff so distasteful that, in fact, the day before, as the same crowd had milled about, watching the completion of the scaffold, he had offered $25 to anyone who would take his place when the time came to knock the block out from under McMahan today.

And someone in the crowd had called out that he would do the Job for $25! Who the volunteer was is not known. Nor is it known today whether he was a man without feeling or merely a man to whom $25, a big sum in that day, seemed so large that no squeamishness would stand in the way of his earning it. Whatever his motives and feeling, this unknown man, out there in the crowd, had agreed to relieve the sheriff of the duty of actually dropping McMahan to his death at the end of a rope.

The sheriff had not committed himself. He could wait till today to decide, he had thought yesterday when the offer was called out from the crowd.

And last night he had not slept. On the one hand was his repugnance to the thought that any man, except under the compulsion of duty, would take a human life - would take it for $25 or , thought the sheriff, for $2,500, or any other amount. On the other hand was the unpleasant knowledge that this was one of his duties as sheriff and that he had no right to dodge it.

Just when he had come to the conclusion that he himself would be the one who sent Willie McMahan to eternity, Sheriff Higdon did not know. But, at some time during that long, sleepless night he had reached the decision, because here he was, a few minutes before the time for the hanging, in McMahan's cell, snapping on the handcuffs, to take McMahan out there in the bright sunshine - sunshine that would suddenly be blotted out for this hapless man.

There! They were securely on. Now to open the cell door and lead McMahan to the scaffold.

But what was that? Hoofbeats! How fast they struck the sunbaked red clay street! Somebody was riding hard.

The rider came swiftly around the bend in the street, and galloped up to the crowd around the scaffold. His horse was white with sweat. The rider himself seemed out of breath with excitement as he called out to the crowd,

"Where is the high sheriff?"

And then, before any in the thunderstruck crowd could answer,

"Has Willie McMahan hung yet?"

"No", came the reply, but he's about to."

"Thank God, I'm in time -- where is the sheriff?"

"Here!" shouted the sheriff, hurrying out of the jail, bringing with him, perforce, a dazed McMahan. "Here! What is it?"

Without a word, the courier handed the sheriff a paper - It was a commutation of McMahan's sentence, from death by hanging to life imprisonment.

Almost as strange as the story-itself is the explanation of why the sentence was commuted.

McMahan, the story goes, was about to be arrested by a Jackson County officer of the law for some minor offence. Determined not to be taken, McMahan whipped out his gun and fired at the officer. But his bullets went wild and struck Buchanan, a bystander, instead.

Thus, the then governor of North Carolina appears to have reasoned, there was no intent to kill the man for whose murder McMahan was tried. As far as McMahan's intentions were concerned, Buchanan's death was an accident. And, without intent, there could be no murder in the first degree.

Whether that is, or was, good law, was up to the judgement of the governor.

The information above appears in the June 16, 1955 edition of the Franklin Press; it was submitted by Denton Higdon of North Carolina. 

1Jo Ann Smith also published this article in the July 1973 issue of the Higdon Family Newsletter. Regarding the handcuffs, she notes: "The handcuffs are now owned by the late John Higdon's son, Lewis Higdon of Asheville, N.C. John W. Higdon passed away June 4, 1970.”

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