CALDWELL PARISH, LA (WVUE) - Seventy-five years ago, a violent Arkansas prison break, kidnappings and shootouts with Louisiana lawmen led to the last executions by hanging in the state of Louisiana. The showdown between a sheriff's posse and escapees took place in Caldwell Parish in North Louisiana.
Behind the bars of the parish prison, a narrow stairway with 13 steps leads to a barren concrete and steel cell that hasn't been used in nearly 75 years. This is the site of Louisiana's last legal hangings. Sheriff Steve May has spent years researching the executions of March 7, 1941, when four men walked these final 13 steps to the gallows.
"You've got your trap door right here where they made them stand," May said. "And once they pulled the lever, then the trap door would spring open when they pulled the lever."
The events that led to the Caldwell Parish hangings began six months earlier, 150 miles away, at the Cummins Prison in Arkansas. Inmates overpowered guards and fled in all directions.
"Close to Pine Bluff in Arkansas," May said. "It was 36 of them escaped, which was the largest escape in the nation's history of the time."
Six inmates ended up on a collision course with a sheriff's posse in Caldwell Parish. In nearby Rayville, the escapees commandeered a car with three high school students. Then the convicts and their hostages were cornered near the Ouchita River. May remembers his dad telling him the story.
"They were all scared out in the country," May said. "I mean, he said his daddy had a gun and all the country people, they were there with the guns. It had to be chaos. I mean, you figure you get all of these rednecks up here with a bunch of guns running looking for somebody, and I'm really surprised somebody else didn't get hurt."
The manhunt turned violent when Frank Gartman, a local car dealer and posseman, was fatally shot.
"This was late at night after dark," May said. "You know, you shine a light on them saying y'all come on give up, and at that point the shots were fired and he got shot."
One of the escapees was also killed. Four more were caught and would stand trial for murder. A month later, they were convicted and sentenced to death. And five months later, they were facing the hangman's noose on the top floor of the courthouse.
The fourth executions were quite the spectacle. Kids were given the day off from school and hundreds of people waited here on the lawn in front of the jail. Starting at noon and at 30 minute intervals, Williams Landers, William Heard, William Meharg and Floyd Boyce climbed the 13 steps. Witnesses watched from the jail hallway below.
"The trapdoor's here and once the body fell, the witnesses could see the body fall through the trap door," May said.
Then men each had prepared statements. One thanked his mother, saying he had turned away from sin and was saved. He cautioned others not to lead a life of crime. And another gave the sheriff a fake gun made out of cardboard and foil.
"[He] said, 'look, we had planned on using this to try to escape, but we didn't ever use it, so I'm going to give it to you,'" May said.
Three months later, Louisiana executions were changed from the noose to the electric chair. There would never be another hanging, and never again were four men executed on the same day. There Is only this stark reminder in Caldwell Parish.
The last execution by electric chair in Louisiana was July 22, 1991.