There are pieces of local history scattered throughout the York-Poquoson Courthouse that passersby might never even notice.
Turn into the circuit court clerk’s office, look at the wall and a mounted hatchet sits, telling a history long forgotten.
The inscription below the hatchet reads:
“Hewing Hatchett loaned by Thomas M. Chandler of Yorktown to Chitty Wade, Sheriff of York County in 1886, to cut the rope that sprung the trap in hanging of Jake Butler. The only known legal hanging in York County.”
When local Rob Bidwell visited the courthouse in June, he noticed the hatchet on the wall and, concerned it was related to malicious activities, tried to find more information about the man involved. But Bidwell came up short and found he was unable to find any more information about the mysterious Jake Butler.
But Frank Green, amateur historian and co-founder of the York County Historical Society, knew exactly what vague history the hatchet was representing. He said he had seen the hatchet in the courthouse since he worked for York County in 1982.
“I don’t think there were many hangings,” Green said. “It was something where…a whole lot of people would come like an event.”
Green said since hangings were so infrequent, crowds of hundreds might show up as a form of entertainment and many reporters came to document the event.
According to an article from the Richmond-Times Dispatch dated Nov. 21, 1885, the event was the first execution of a criminal in 40 years. The previous execution had been in 1867 after an African American man attempted to drown a white child.
The Richmond-Times Dispatch covered the event very closely, documenting not only how Jacob Butler ended up with his punishment and the environment in which the hanging happened.
Butler was a black man convicted of murdering James Griffin, another African American man. Butler admitted to killing Griffin because he owed the man money.
Griffin told Butler that if he did not pay the debt, then he would die and brought his sons to shoot at Butler’s home multiple evenings. After multiple threats on his life, Butler eventually went to Griffin’s house with a loaded gun and shot Griffin when he came out.
“I was alone in my crime, and deserve the punishment which I am to receive,” Butler said.
Butler had two trials for the murder charge, a second based on a technical issue — both resulted in a conclusive murder verdict. Butler escaped on his jay to the local jail. He was recaptured after several days of searching.
The reporter described Butler singing in a low monotone voice on his way to the scaffold to be hung while African Americans lined the road to look at him.
“He was an African American many so it may bring a different light to the situation,” Griffin said. “It’s just the time—Virginia was a very segregated place and a lot of times the black people didn’t get a fair shake, but they said with him the evidence was pretty substantial.”
The Richmond-Times Dispatch described the scaffold as a “rude affair” with a drop of about 3 feet.
“When the prisoner mounted the platform he appeared calm and collected,” according to the article. “His only exhibition of feeling being a cry of farewell to his colored brethren.”
And that’s where the hatchet comes into play.
It was used to cut the tripwire that held up the bottom of the platform, Green said. Once cut, Butler fell to his death and hung for about a half an hour. The crowds surrounding Butler erupted in numerous fights, according to the article.
“Ancient Yorktown appeared to have discarded its historic traces of patriotic warfare for the more active and realistic pictures of modern pugilism,” according to the article.
Green said the practice of public hanging fell out of use as many executions started to be done by electric chair. He wasn’t sure why the hatchet was important enough to be placed in the courthouse but it does represent a specific moment in local history.
While the hatchet represents a small part of local history, it will forever remember the last moments of a man’s life.
“I implore all to take warning from my fate and live soberly, righteously and godly in this world,” were Butler’s final words. “May the Lord Jesus have mercy on my soul and receive my spirit into glory. Good-bye to you all, and may we meet in heaven.”
YOU MIGHT ALSO WANT TO CHECK OUT THESE STORIES:
- From 1961 to 2020: How racial injustice has continued to shape Williamsburg
- Tour group brings WWII history alive in Historic Triangle
- There are no recorded lynchings in the Historic Triangle, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen
- Local professor explores blackface minstrelsy in America and abroad in new book