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[WV] Roanoke's last public execution

John Hardy's hanging paints a queasy portrait of race relations 100 years ago in the city.

By Mike Allen

This 1904 photograph was taken at the hanging of Henry Williams. John Hardy, who was executed 100 years ago today, was the only other person to die on the gallows in the Roanoke jail yard.
"Hardy was described as 'more knave than fool' and many in Roanoke believed him innocent." | Raymond Barnes, Roanoke historian

A century ago today, John Hardy waited to die on a scaffold in the Roanoke jail yard. He said nothing to the small group of curious onlookers who had come to watch him hang.

At least one person who couldn't get into the courtyard climbed a telephone pole to watch the death of a man described as a "negro desperado" and a "brute."

It was the last time anyone would view a public execution in Roanoke.

At the time, the city had earned a reputation for erupting in murderous mob violence against blacks accused of crime. The anger over Hardy's crime did not result in racial retaliation, but his treatment by the justice system and media paint a queasy portrait of race relations at the start of the 20th century.

On Oct. 12, 1906, three bullets from Hardy's pistol made Robert Beard the first officer from the Roanoke police department to lose his life in the line of duty. A jury found Hardy guilty of murdering Beard -- who was white -- to escape arrest.

Hardy lost an eye in a brutal beating during his capture. Still, he walked without help to the gallows and stood silently while his jailers spent 20 minutes adjusting the rope.

Hardy went to his grave claiming he'd shot in self-defense after his life was threatened during an arrest that a judge concluded to be illegal. By the day of his execution, a few notes of sympathy had crept into otherwise callous newspaper accounts.

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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