(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
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
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
HUSBAND, WIFE and
SON HANGED AFTER BEING FOUND GUILTY of MURDER BACK IN YEAR 1845
The following story was printed
in a Washington County, Arkansas Newspaper about 1950 (some parts
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.
THREE ARE HANGED
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
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
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
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
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
(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?).