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Birth name: Lavinia Veny Sharp
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Robbery
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: September 9, 1845
Date of birth: 1790
Victim profile: Jonathan Selby
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Washington County, Arkansas, USA
Status: Executed by hanging on November 8, 1845

Lavinia Burnett (died November 8, 1845) was the first woman to be executed in the state of Arkansas.

Burnett, her husband Crawford, and their son John, were arrested, tried, and convicted of the murder of Jonathan Selby, who lived near Fayetteville, Arkansas, and who allegedly kept large sums of money at his residence. John Burnett was actually implicated as the suspect who killed Selby. One of Lavinia and Crawford's daughters informed authorities that all three were involved in the plan, and all three were present when it was carried out.

Lavinia and Crawford Burnett were tried in October 1845 and sentenced to be hanged on November 8, 1845. The hanging was reportedly well attended. John Burnett was arrested in Missouri and was found guilty on December 4, 1845. He was hanged on December 26, 1845.


1845: Lavinia Burnett and Crawford Burnett

On this date in 1845, husband-and-wife murderers Crawford and Lavinia Burnett (nee Sharp) danced a gallows jig built for two in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

The duo contrived with their son, John, to rob and murder a nearby recluse, Jonathan Selby, for the money he was thought to be hoarding.

The family the slays together, pays together.

Alas for mom, dad, and big brother, 15-year-old daughter Minerva shopped them.

John-boy was still on the lam at this time — he’d be caught soon, and hanged December 26 — but Lavinia and Crawford hanged together before a large crowd in the vicinity of the present-day Fayetteville National Cemetery.

It was the first recorded execution of a woman in Arkansas history, and would be the only such until the year 2000.

Among the ranks of the Burnetts’ illustrious if unsuccessful defense team was Isaac Murphy, who would go on to become a notable pro-Union pol during the Civil War (with a murky part in an infamous massacre of Confederate sympathizers), and subsequently became governor of the state during Reconstruction.


Early Crimes of Washington County, Arkansas

In 1845 occurred the first legal executions in Washington County. In the autumn of that year Crawford Burnett, his wife Lavinia, and his son John, were hung for the murder of Jonathan Selby. Selby was a bachelor living some few miles from Fayetteville, and was murdered for the money he was supposed to keep in his house.

Much excitement was aroused, and suspicion fell upon the Burnetts. They were taken into custody, and a daughter, a young girl about fifteen years of age, confessed that her parents had planned the murder, and that her brother, John, had executed it. Before the arrests the latter had gone to Missouri, and only Burnett and his wife were taken into custody.

They were tried at a special term in October, 1845. A. B. Greenwood was prosecuting attorney, and the judge assigned Isaac Strain and James P. Neal to defend the prisoners. Isaac Murphy also volunteered his services for the defense. The defendants were tried separately, and a verdict of guilty returned in each case. The trials were short, the principal witness being the daughter that had confessed to the guilt of the parents. They were sentenced to be hung on November 8, 1845, less than thirty days after the trial.

At the appointed time a gallows was erected on the hill south of town, not far from the National Cemetery, and there in the presence of almost the entire county Crawford and Lavinia Burnett were landed into eternity.

Soon after their execution John Burnett was arrested, and returned to the county. He was indicted, and after a brief trial found guilty, and on December 4, 1845, was sentenced to be hung on the 26th of the same month. His attorneys were Isaac Murphy and A. M. Wilson. They believed their client innocent of the crime, and did all in their power to save him, but, in the face of the two prior convictions and the testimony of the sister, that was but little; he was hanged on the day named, on the same scaffold where his parents had met their deaths less than two months before.



The following story was printed in a Washington County, Arkansas Newspaper about 1950 (some parts are illegible):

The early history of Washington County was not, for a frontier country, particularly bloody. But the period from 1829 until well up toward the turn of the century was a time when most men went armed and violence was accepted as a natural part of frontier life.

And Northwest Arkansas was, even many years after the founding of Washington County, a frontier. To the west was the Indian Territory, noted as home territory for outlaws and cut-throats. The Ozark Mountains served as home to many men who had, all their lives, depended on their weapons for security.

By 1845, Fayetteville, the county seat, had known several murder trials - mostly ending in acquittals - but none of the defendants has been executed.


But in the fall and winter of 1845 - 105 years ago this winter - a man, his wife, and their son were hanged in Fayetteville for the murder of a recluse who had lived near Fayetteville. Many people believed the trio not guilty, but a daughter of the older suspects gave testimony which clinched the case for the state and ended in a death verdict for the couple and their son.

During the late summer of 1845, a bachelor named Jonathan Selby was murdered at his home several miles outside of Fayetteville. The theory was that Selby had been killed for a large sum of money he supposedly kept hidden in his home. Selby was possibly the first, but far from the last, Washington County resident to be slain for money supposedly hoarded under a mattress or in the attic.

Why suspicion fell on Crawford Burnett, his wife, Mrs. Lavinia Burnett and their son John is not now known. The parents were arrested and jailed but the son John had left for Missouri and could not be found.

Following the arrests the Burnetts 15 year old daughter, Minerva, reported that the murder had been planned by her mother and father, and carried out by her absent brother. Some of the countys most capable and respected attorneys doubted the childs story, but the jury believed it.

Mr. and Mrs. Burnett were tried at a special term of Circuit Court in October 1845. Interest in the case ran high. In an area where the population was still small, most people knew either the victim or his alleged slayers and opinion was divided.

The special term opened Friday October 3rd with Circuit Judge Gibson G. Sneed, presiding Sheriff Elijah OBrian was ordered to summon 38 men for a Grand Jury. The Grand Jury was empaneled without waste of time, instructed by the prosecuting attorney, A.H. Greenwood and retired to deliberate.

Before noon, Thomas Wilson, foreman of the Grand Jury, reported that the jurors had indicted Crawford and Lavinia Burnett on a charge of murder in the death of Selby.

The following day, Saturday, October 4th, both defendants pleaded not guilty and asked for a trial by jury. Judge Sneed ordered the sheriff to secure a jury panel and released Minerva Burnett, the daughter until Monday, October 6th under a $100 bond. A second witness, Hardin Sharp was freed under a similar bond.

Court convened Monday morning and the Burnetts attorney Charles G. Baylor asked to be relieved of his duties. Judge Sneed complied with the request and appointed Isaac Stinin and James Neil as defense attorneys. A third Fayetteville lawyer, Isaac Murphy later to serve as governor of Arkansas, volunteered to aid the defense.

Burnett and his wife were tried separately. On Wednesday a jury was assembled to hear the case against Crawford Burnett. The testimony given by his daughter Minerva... [illegible] that the jury had found Burnett guilty of first degree murder.

The following day, Lavinia Burnett went on trial for her life. His attorneys attempted to ... the testimony of Hardin Sharp...Nothing is now known of Sharps testimony... Again Minerva Burnett testified that she had heard her parents plotting the death of Selby with her brother John. As in the previous trial the jury deliberated briefly before returning a guilty verdict.

On Tuesday, October 10th, Judge Sneed pronounced sentence on the two defendants, ordering them taken to the common gallows and hanged by the neck until dead. On Saturday, November 8th, both Burnett and his wife were hanged from a gallows where the National Cemetery is now located.

The court had ordered that the sentence be carried out between 12 oclock noon and 3 p.m. A large crowd had gathered some time before the executions and it appears that almost every person in the county who was able to reach Fayetteville that day was on hand by the time of the executions.

A few days after the execution of his parents, John Burnett was arrested in Missouri and returned to Fayetteville for trial. The youth, his exact age is unknown, was promptly tried in Circuit Court before Judge Sneed, found guilty and sentenced to death.

Young Burnett was indicted by a Grand Jury December 1st and efforts to select a jury began the following day. Although no record of the proceedings was kept in those days, the bare record of court proceedings indicates that Burnetts attorneys put up a fight. The lawyers appear to have believed in the innocence of their client, but the testimony of the sister convinced the jury that Burnett was guilty and on December 26th, the day after Christmas, John Burnett was led to the gallows where his parents had died and hanged by the neck until dead."

(The testimony of the case was reviewed by many well-known and highly influential attorneys after the death of the three Burnetts and it was the general consensus that the daughter Minerva lied about her parents and brother out of revenge. I wonder what happened to her?).



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