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A.K.A.: "The Miracle Man"
Classification: Murderer?
Characteristics: Justice miscarriage - Member of the "White Caps" - Revenge
Number of victims: 1 ?
Date of murder: June 21, 1883
Date of arrest: Next day
Date of birth: 1864
Victim profile: Will Buckley
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Marion County, Mississippi, USA
Status: Sentenced to death by hanging, but survived because the noose untied around his neck. Commuted the sentence to life imprisonment on March 12, 1896. Full and unconditional pardon in Dec. 1898. Died in 1938
Will Purvis

Will Purvis was a member of the White Caps, a group with foundations similar to the Ku Klux Klan. He was convicted of the murder of Will Buckley in 1894 and always maintained his innocence. He scornfully told the jury he would "live longer than the lot of them". He was sentenced to death by hanging, but survived because the noose untied around his neck. He was imprisoned, pardoned and eventually released. Nineteen years later another man confessed to the crime. Will Purvis died in 1938, three days after the last juror had died.


Will Purvis was convicted of the murder of Will Buckley.  Buckley was a member of the Whitecaps, a tight-knit organization similar to the Ku Klux Klan.  Its members swore in blood never to reveal its secrets.  In early 1892, the Whitecaps had unmercifully flogged a black servant of Buckley.  Buckley had known nothing of the Whitecaps' intentions and was absent.  Enraged at this uncalled-for violence and the secrecy with which it was carried out, Buckley decided to submit the whole affair and to expose the secrets of the Whitecaps to the next meeting of the Grand Jury.  At the Grand Jury meeting, Buckley's evidence was presented, and indictments were brought against the three Whitecaps who were known to be most brutal in the attack.

On his way home from the Grand Jury meeting, Buckley traveled through a forest path with his brother Jim and the flogged servant, all of them on horseback.  While passing through a ravine a hidden gunmen shot Buckley dead.  The gunman then jumped onto the path, reloaded his gun, and shot at Buckley's companions, but they escaped safely on horseback.  Suspicion fell on 19-year-old Will Purvis, as bloodhounds indicated the killer escaped in the direction of the Purvis family home.  Purvis admitted that three months previous he had joined the Whitecaps, but repeatedly professed his innocence of the crime.  At trial Jim Buckley identified Purvis as the shooter.  Purvis had alibi witnesses, but he was convicted and sentenced to death.

Purvis's hanging attracted hundreds of spectators, as hangings in those days were still public events.  On Feb. 7, 1894, the rope was adjusted around Purvis's neck and tested.  A deputy sheriff, seeing an ungainly length of rope dangling from the knot, cut the rope flush with the knot.  When everything was ready, the executioner used his hatchet to cut the stay rope holding the trap and Purvis dropped with a sharp jerk.  The knot, instead of tightening around its victim, untwisted, and Purvis fell to the ground, unhurt.

Dissension arose about whether Purvis should be hung a second time.  It began with an individual, Dr. Ford, who despised the Whitecaps, but believed Purvis was innocent.  Shouts from those nearby seemed to be evenly divided, but when a vote was taken by a show of hands, no one voted to resume the execution, and almost all voted for a stay.  After consulting an attorney, officials were prepared to resume the execution.  However, when Dr. Ford threatened to call 300 men from the crowd to stop the execution, officials relented and brought Purvis back to jail.

The question of whether Purvis should be hanged again was brought to the state Supreme Court.  The court ruled that the fact that officials had been careless in securing the knot was no reason that the law should be thwarted.  It ordered Purvis be hanged again.  In the town to which Purvis had been removed, indignation over the court ruling court ran high. On the evening before the scheduled July 1895 hanging, a group of friends abducted Purvis from the jail and hid him on a secluded farm.  His friends intended to keep him until they could be assured that his life would be spared.

In the following gubernatorial election, one of the issues was whether or not Purvis, if caught, should be hanged. The candidate in favor of modifying the sentence, A. J. McLaurin, won the election.  When he assumed office, Purvis voluntarily surrendered himself, and McLaurin, in accordance with his promise to the people, commuted the sentence to life imprisonment on March 12, 1896.  Two years later the state's star witness, Jim Buckley, who had identified Purvis as the murderer, stated that he might have made a mistake, and that possibly it was not Purvis whom he had seen.  Purvis was consequently given a full and unconditional pardon in Dec. 1898.

In 1917, another man, Joe Beard, became seriously ill and confessed to participating in the murder of Will Buckley.  He named his accomplice who shot Buckley.  Beard was supposed to shoot Buckley's two companions, but lost his nerve, allowing them to escape.  Beard's accomplice could not be prosecuted, because Beard died before he could sign a written confession.  Buckley's killer lived alone in the woods and was never again seen in town.  In 1920, the Mississippi legislature awarded Purvis $5000 as compensation for his 4 years of wrongful imprisonment, 3 of which were at hard labor.


White Caps and Bull Doozers, or Will Purvis

Numerous stories have been written on the life and experience of Will Purvis, known as the "Miracle Man", or the man who was hanged and still lives. His life on the gallows, in the convict camp, and as a fugitive was all brought about by his being a member of the "White Caps". In the year 1895, when he had just returned from school at the age of 19 years, there was a secret clan known as the White Caps which had overrun Mississippi. They had banded together to promote a better regime of law and order. Their meetings were held in secret and no one but a member knew of their meeting place or their plans. The order was much like the Ku Klux Klan and must have been an outcropping of the original clan.

The White Caps were held responsible for many acts of violence and disorder, some of which they were innocent. The law was very much opposed to the White Capping and even the Governor of the State determined to destroy their power.

Soon after Will Purvis became a member of their Clan some of the White Caps called on a Negro, Sam Waller, who was a farm hand on the Buckley Place nearby. Sam had been working for an aged widow in this community, who could pay only a very poor wage. The Buckleys knew Sam's ability as a worker and finally obtained his service on their farm at a higher wage. The White Caps determined this act an injustice to the poor widow and then and there marked the Negro for vengeance. They called at the Buckley farm that night and took Sam out and gave him a flogging. Will Purvis had nothing to do with the whipping, but was present when it took place.

Now the Buckleys were members of the White Caps but denied this. They became very wrought up over the flogging of the Negro and declared that they would report this to the sheriff. All members of the White Caps were stirred up over this and became wary, lest Sam had recognized some of their members.

The Grand Jury was in session in Marion County at the time. The White Caps called a meeting at Red Bluff on Pearl River and the death lot was cast for the murder of Will and Jim Buckley. So while the Buckleys were reporting the misdemeanors of the Clan to the Grand Jury their neighbors were planning their murder. They held their meetings after dark and planned for the murder. Will Purvis had only attended two meetings of the clan prior to this. He arose and stated that as long as the Clan stuck to the colored line that he was with them, but when it came to killing members of the white race they could count him out. He resigned that night and knew nothing more of the activities of the Clan.

Late one afternoon as the Buckley brothers and Sam were returning from Columbia, where they reported the whipping of Sam, they were fired upon from an ambush and Will Buckley was killed from his saddle.

Buckley's murder was soon reported in town and the Sheriff, Jim Buckley, the Coroner, and others returned and prepared Will's body for burial. Jim Buckley claimed that he saw Will Purvis near the scene of the murder and pinned the crime on him. The next day, June 22, 1893 Will Purvis was summoned to appear before the county Grand Jury. About midnight that same night Sheriff I. G. Magee and several deputies called at the home of Will Purvis' father to arrest Will and carry him to jail.

The following day his father engaged two lawyers, Watkins and Travis of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to defend Will. In a short while he was taken to Meridian and placed in jail and remained there thirty days and then was returned to Columbia for trial. This was a special term of court. As public sentiment was running high at that time the Judge felt justified in calling a special term. Then came the strenuous siege of trial, and witness after witness was summoned and questioned. After hours and hours of debating the Grand Jury returned the verdict- "We, the Jury, find the defendant guilty as charged in the indictment and recommend him to the mercy of the court." Then the Judge's sentence- "I sentence you (Will Purvis) to hang by the neck until you are dead, dead, dead, on the 5th day of September, 1893, between the hours of 11 A. M. and 3 P. M. at the jail, Marion County. This was to be a lesson to the White Caps.

It was September 6, 1893. The Reverend Sibley read a short passage of scripture. The sheriff asked Will if he had anything to say; Will stated that the only regret that he had was on account of his grief stricken mother, and shouted, "I didn't do this. There are men out there among you who could save me if they would." The black cap was placed over his face and the trap sprung, but the knot slipped, and he was escorted to the scaffold the second time. The Reverend Sibley cried out, "We have seen a miracle from God and the hand of Providence slipped the noose." Then the vote was cast and was unanimous to the effect that the act should not be repeated. He was taken back to jail and a new trial. The State Supreme Court confirmed the sentence and set the date for him to be hanged a second time on December 12, 1895. He was brought back to Purvis and stayed five months. One Sunday night friends broke jail and set him free. He hid out with friends until February, 1897; then he gave up. Upon his surrender Governor McLaurin sent him to Okley Farm between Natchez and Jackson and he remained there until on December 20, 1898 he was pardoned.

After coming home he married and reared a large family. In 1920, Joe Beard, a resident of Marion County, went before Toxey Hall, then District Attorney and confessed to the murder of Will Buckley. After Purvis' innocence was established the Mississippi Legislature on March 15, 1920 appropriated $3,000 compensation for the services performed in the penitentiary through an erroneous conviction.

Will Purvis Pardon

The petition for the pardon of Will Purvis, the Marion County whitecapper who miraculously escaped the hangman's noose by the slip of the rope and is now serving a life sentence in the penitentiary has received over 100 signatures among the members of the legislature. This petition is signed by all officers in Marion County with some 1700 citizens of the county. Representative Hathorne of Marion County will present these petitions to the governor in a day or two.

The Pearl River News, February 4., 1898

$10,000 for Will Purvis

Representative John A. Yeager of Lamar County introduced a bill in the house this week for the relief of Will Purvis. The bill appropriates $10,000 and reads that it is given as a measure of recompense for the erroneous prosecution, conviction and punishment of the said Will Purvis of the state of Mississippi, relative to the assassination of Will Buckley in Marion County, Mississippi, in the year of 1893.

A little over a year ago the real murderer of Buckley confessed on his deathbed the crime, finally clearing the name of Purvis, whom many have believed innocent. The Columbian was the first paper to announce to the world the confession and a day or two after its issue the leading Metropolitan Papers played the news up in big business.

The Columbian, January 17, 1918



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