The hanging of Frank Henson

Before lethal injection, before the electric chair, before the walls went up at the state prison in McAlester, individual counties were responsible for executing criminals convicted of capital crimes.

Only one such execution occurred in Tulsa County.

In early 1911, a scuffle broke out in a bar at Dawson. Dawson has long since been absorbed into the city, but in 1911 it was a rural ranching and coal-mining community on the Frisco line. When the dust cleared, a county deputy names Charles Stamper was dead and all fingers pointed to a black man who went by the name Frank Henson.

Henson was duly trialed and sentenced to death. Remarkably, given current attitudes, Tulsa County appealed the sentence. It did not want to execute Henson or anyone else. Oklahoma had executed only two people in its first three years of statehood, and Gov. Lee Cruce opposed capital punishment on moral grounds. But in this case he refused to intervene. Frank Henson was to hang by the neck until dead.

Sheriff Bill McCullough, a former cowboy with a big handlebar mustache, had the job of building the scaffolding and, when the executioner failed to show up, tying the noose, putting it around Henson’s neck, and dropping the trapdoor. McCullough would be sheriff a decade later during Tulsa’s 1921 race riot, but late in life called the Henson execution “about the worst job I ever had to do.”

Henson, maintaining his innocence until the end, was brought to the gallows just after dawn on March 31. Five hundred people had gathered to watch, despite the hour.

A black preacher named C.L. Netherland read the Twenty-third Psalm. Henson asked to speak. The witnesses had lied, he said. Stamper fired first, without identifying himself, said Henson.

“I’m going to get higher than any of you,” he said. “Some of you are going to have tribulations getting there.”

Henson prayed for McCullough and the other lawmen escorting him, asked God to forgive them, “for they know not what they do.”

Then, finally, he said, “My name is not Frank Henson. It is Amos Bell. You won’t find anything bad behind that name.”

The noose was then placed around Henson’s — or Bell’s — neck and a hood placed over his head.

“Are you ready Frank?” McCullough asked. When Henson didn’t respond, the sheriff added “may God bless you,” as he pulled the lever to drop the trap door.

“Whether the execution of Henson was justifiable was a question debated her for some time,” the Tulsa World reported. “Many wanted the sentence commuted to life imprisonment.”

Even in 1911, it seems, capital punishment was a source of controversy and strong feelings.

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