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The Hanging Tree: A Botched Execution for an Innocent Man- The Story of Evan Hopson

My Appalachian Ancestors

By Genealogy FreakPublished 3 years ago 17 min read
Evan "Eive" Hopson

How We Connect

My Great-Grandfather Theodore Hopson was the son of John C. Hopson, the son of Littleton W. Hopson and Mary Emmaline Brummitt. Evan Hopson was John C. Hopson's older brother. Evan is my 3x Great-Uncle.

Early Life

When Evan Hopson was born in 1872, his father, Littleton, was 37 and his mother, Mary, was 34. Littleton who was from North Carolina and Mary who was from Tennessee raised their children in little home in Wise County, Virginia. His siblings included Polly, Lafayette Noah, Elizabeth, Matilda, George W., John C., Mary C., and Ellen. My personal connection to Evan is that he is my grandpa Theodore's dad's brother. Theodore's dad was Evan's brother John.

Evan, or "Eive", as he was known to be called, worked as a construction foreman in a mine camp called Glamorgan. He married Mary I. Colley on January 9, 1899, in Dickenson, Virginia when she was 17 and he was 27. Only four short years later, the young bride's vows were being put to the test. Whether she was unhappy due to a toxic relationship or because she was too young when she got married to know who she was and what she wanted and had started figuring it out as she matured, is anyone's guess. Either could be plausible. Unlike many in his family, although Evan drank, he was not an alcoholic; but, as any descendant of the Appalachian Hopson clan can tell you, our roots were watered with bottles of liquor. If he wasn't a regular drinker, then I would imagine the effects of alcohol would hit him harder and faster than an experienced drinker. With moonshine in his his veins, I place my cards on the probability that Evan wasn't always a delight to live with. For whatever reason that was true to them, Evan and Mary had a rocky relationship and she sought attention outside the union with a man called Neely Hawkins. Hawkins had once been considered a friend of Evan. Knowledge of his wife's infidelity no doubt hurt him as much as it angered him. I imagine many nights, yelling filled their room. He wanted to work things out with Mary and figured that if he could ignore the situation, it would work itself out. His best solution to ignoring it? Whiskey.

Eive had started going out drinking with the boys a lot more often than normal. By means of going out and socializing, his circle began to expand and he started finding himself in the company of amigos he wouldn't otherwise have been hanging with. Mary would point out the bad crew he was hanging with a time or two but you can't reason with liquor and it only pushed her even further away. There was no repairing the threads of their marriage that had already begun to come undone.

Evan "Eive" Hopson

That Fateful Night

On the night of November 3, 1903, Eive had spent the day drinking and partying with the guys: His nephew, Littleton Hopson II (Litt), and two buddies from the rougher side of his circle: Enoch Wright and Bob Mullins. Late into the night, Litt had drunken himself into a whirling stupor. He couldn't keep up with the more well seasoned men. When the men went looking for him, they found him sleeping it off. As the festivities started winding down and the alcohol in their stomachs begged for food, the men came up with an idea only sensible to drunks. They devised a plan to steal some chickens out of the yard of a nearby neighbor, John Salyers in Greasy Branch.

At about 10 P.M., Eive, Enoch, and Bob sneaked into the yard and straight to the chicken pen. As Eive climbed a tree in order to drop into the pen and grab his chosen one, the chickens cawed a horrible fuss. Hearing the noise outside his home, John Salyers ran outside to see what was the matter. Upon catching a glimpse of the men invading his chickens, he quickly went inside to retrieve his gun and came back shooting. As soon as he fired the first shot, he was immediately hit with a return fire from the pen. The .45 caliber bullet entered his hip and tore through his bowels and guts. Salyers died from the injury two weeks later, on November 18, 1902. He took his last breath at 3 A.M..

Condemned to Die

Evan, Wright and Mullins were caught and charged with murder. Upon being questioned about their involvment, Wright and Mullins stood fast on Eive being the armed gunman. Eive stood fast on the fact that he was in the tree holding a chicken with both hands in use and couldn't have possibly shot a gun. The gun did, however, belong to Eive. He argued that he had given his gun to Bob Mullins when he went up the tree so that he wouldn't lose the gun during his climb. It had to be, he reasoned, one of the other men who had actually pulled the trigger, firing the shot that killed John Salyers. Bob Mullins, however, testified on the stand that it was absolutely Eive who pulled the trigger.

Despite swearing that he had no gun on his body at the time of the shooting and that he had one hand holding him into the tree and the other hand occupying the chicken he had just napped, the jury deliberated and came back with a guilty verdict. Wright and Mullins were sentenced to jail for being present, therefore accomplices in the crime. Enoch Wright received 17 years and Bob Mullins received 18 years in the Virginia State Penitentiary. Evan Hopson was sentenced to death and was scheduled to visit the hangman's tree.

Life in Prison

Evan found spirituality behind bars, as many often do and he requested to have himself redeemed in the manner customary but Judge Matthew refused. Jailer Renfro took Evan down to a nearby creek and setup a ceremony there led by Elder John Hopkins. As fate would have it, John Salyers's sons were among the crowd gathered to watch Evan's dedication. "Boys," Evan said, looking at them, "I never harmed your father in my life."

While in prison, Eive petitioned the Court to relieve Sheriff Wilburn Killen as executioner and order the deputy sheriff to perform the duty. Eive's reason was that the Hopsons and the Killens had been life-long friends, almost family, from their days on Cane Creek in Dickenson County. They say it takes a village to raise a child. Killen was among Eive's village. Wilburn took care of Eive when he was an infant. The Court ruled the execution was the duty of the Sheriff and denied the petition, leaving Sheriff Killen distraught.

Evan Hopson Speaks

Evan "Eive" Hopson (Photo courtesy of

On June 12, 1903, standing in the window of the courthouse, Evan watched as the crowd of people who were coming to spectate his death grew ever larger. It is said that the atmosphere on the court grounds that day was rather festive, almost like that of a county fair. Many horse-drawn wagons arrived packed with families, picnic baskets in hand, who planned to make an all day thing of the event. Taking all of that in, as well as the realism of the fact that within just an hour everything would be gone from existence made Eive do quite a bit of self-reflection. He eventually thought up things he felt he needed to get off of his chest before he met his maker.

Eive was finally, yet all too soon, led to the newly erected scaffold that loomed the grounds of the Wise County Courthouse. Before ascending the steps of the scaffold, Eive was asked if he had any last words. Calling down from the platform of the scaffold, he addressed the crowd in what would ultimately be considered him officiating his own funeral. In a very long and dawn out speech, Eive told everyone just what he thought about the world, the word justice, and his doomed circumstance. He spoke in such a way that seemed as if he were thinking out loud or confiding in a friend. Everyone in attendance agreed that they felt something when he spoke.

In his own words, the people in Wise heard Evan say:

"Well, ladies and gentlemen, all of you, I have come here to try to talk to all of you a little while. This is a pretty sad occasion for lots of people. I am looked up on here as a willful murderer, but thank God, there is no murder in my heart-no murder alleged against me in the day to come. I am just as free of murder as I am condemned to die for murder. I thank God that there is not a stain of any man's blood against me. I want all of you to take warning of my condition. i am here to suffer and to die for what some other man did.

"I don't believe that I got justice in this place for because if I had got justice I would never have been standing where I am standing at the present time; my life was just simply sworn from me by the man who did the crime, and there is other men that prosecuted my life away from me wrongfully; but there is a day coming that they will meet the same God that i do-God does all things well, there is no doubt about it; and I warn all people young and old, men and women, to shun bad company, for a man when he is out don't know when he meets up with a man, he don't know what is in that man's heart; you can't look in a man's face and tell what is in his heart.

"You may think that a man is the best friend you have int he world, and that he has as true a heart in him as was every inside of any man, and right then he is seeking some advantage to get your life taken from you; that is the way with a good many men. I feel in the hands of bad company.

"The most of men when they get up here in my condition will pack it all on whiskey; but I don't pack it all on whiskey. I just lay it to an accident.I fell into the hands of bad company, that is all. And my intentions were always good when I was drinking whiskey, and I know I had a good pure heart in me, and I thought everybody ought to have, and that is the reason I am where I am today.

"I am up here with but a few minutes to life; and I thank God that I am not afraid to die; I am not afraid but what I will meet my God in peace. The prosecuting attorney here went down there and took the dying man's declaration and then got up and told the jury to hang me, the he believed every word that Bob Mullins said as if it was an angel that had come down on its snowy white wings from heaven and told it. He had done been there and heard Bub Mullins swear that I was on the inside of the fence when the man was shot. Also, he heard the man swear that the man on the outside shot him. There must have been a mistake between Brother Dotson or Mr. Mullins one.

"But anyway, my life is just politely and emphatically being stolen from me at this place. it looks pretty hard for a man just to have his life forced away from him. But thank God, there is a day coming that these men swore and prosecuted my innocent life away from me will have to meet the same God that I meet and I fear that the day will come that it will be like the Rich Man was by Lazarus. Look up and think, Just some man dip the end of his finger in water and put it to my tongue.

"Of course, if I had justice in this court, why I would not have been standing where I stand now. I know that I did not get justice, and God knows it, too. But there is a day coming that I will get justice, and I praise God for it. It was jut money and lies being sworn against a poor orphan boy that is all that I can say that put me here-money, false prosecution and lies!"

"It looks like a pretty hard case for a man to come up and to walk upon the scaffold and his life taken from hi for what some other man done; but God is a just God. he does all things well. There is a day coming when God will make all these things that are put against me come around right.

"I can stand man's punishment here without a bit of fear; I don't doubt in the lease but what I will meet my God in peace, for my heart feels clear of all I am charged of, and I thank God for it.

"All I hate in this world is to have my life taken from me for what somebody else done, but I can't help that."

During Evan's long speech, a loud shot was heard echoing through the air. A guard had carelessly discharged a shotgun, causing a rush in the crowd. A few women scarcely got away without being hurt. Hearing the fire and seeing the scurry, Evan chortled matter-of-factly, if not as a double entendre, "A gun in the hands of a fool is a dangerous thing."

"Sheriff Killen does not want to hang me because we have been friends and neighbors all my life. He held me on his knee when I was a baby," Eive told the crowd. "So, I'm going to ask Jailer Charlie Renfro to hang me in his stead..."

Renfro, who was standing behind him, stepped up and told him he had refused to do it. He knew Killen didn't want to hang Hopson. Killen was close to him and knew he was an innocent man. The thought of being the one to draw the rope that killed Evan kept Sheriff Killen awake all night before the execution. Renfro, however, had developed a kindness for Evan Hopson and did not want the man's life on his hands either.

Botched Execution

Sheriff Killen, Jailer Renfro, and others preparing the gallows

As Evan made his way to the scaffold, the last location he would ever behold, he laid eyes on John Salyer's brother, Robert. Reaching out to shake his hand, Eive said to him most assuredly, "I never harmed a hair on your brother's head." Until this moment, Robert was convinced Evan had been the killer. His mind had changed. He was now convinced Evan didn't do it. Once up on the scaffold, Evan called out to the spectators.

"Now, I all who believe I'm not guilty to raise their hand!"

Hands went up all among the crowd. But it didn't matter. It didn't matter that many of his peers believed he was innocent. It didn't matter that the victim's family now believe Evan Hopson's life should be spared. All that mattered now was that trapdoor and the noose.

A test run of the mechanical drop door revealed faulty equipment just minutes before the hanging was to take place. The sheriff and others shuffled about, working to make repairs. Not that they were in any hurry to kill the man in question, but because they had no choice but to carry on business as usual. While Sheriff Killen made the repair, Eive maintained without a hint of nervous tension or a bit of fear. When the gallows had been repaired, Eive stoically stepped upon the trapdoor and waited for Jailer Renfro, in all his guilt, to slide the rope around his neck and the black sack over his head.

Evan Hopson laid to rest after execution (Photo courtesy of

At 1:48 P.M. on June 12, 1903, his long-time friend, Sheriff Wilburn Killen, pulled the lever which opened the trapdoor, letting Eive's body drop several feet and then snap to a stop as the rope became fully extended. The fall did not break his neck. In his death throes, Eive was jerking and thrashing around at the end of the rope, strangling to death rather than dying instantly of a broken neck. An ominous thing happened when the black hood came off his head and the onlookers had to see the look of fear, dispair, panic and pain that overcome the calm face of the man who had just been gently speaking to them. The look on his face, widened eyes bulging, tongue swelling and face turning blue... Those there for a good time were quickly reminded of the real reason they came: to take the life from an innocent man, to watch the innocence, not the guilt, drain from his body as he struggled and fought for his life. Evan fought so hard that not once, but twice he pulled the black bag from over his head so he could breathe and see the rope he was trying desperately to climb.

The following account is taken from the direct words of Jailer Renfro, concerning what he had witnessed at the execution.

"As Sheriff Killen reached for the lever, I looked at him and he looked at me. His face was terrible to see. Hopson dropped but his neck failed to break. He worked his hands loose, tore the cap from his face, and tried to pull himself up the rope. He literally choked to death..."

Among those present to witness the grotesque face of death on Eive in that long, final moment was his wife, accompanied by her paramour, Neely Hawkins. One can only imagine the emotions and thoughts she must have felt at that moment and how bad it must have bothered her and weighed on her mind for some time after.

The trapdoor was released at 1:48 P.M. but it took nearly twenty minutes for Evan to die. Doctors Miles, Cherry, and Taylor examined him but did not pronounce him dead until he had hung for 35 minutes.

For half an hour Evan Hopson fought to live.

Evan Hopson's Headstone (Photo courtesy of

Evans body was placed in a black coffin and given to Pat Senter, Evan's brother-in-law. Senter loaded Eive onto a wagon and headed for Skeetrock. His mother, Mary, ran out to the wagon that carried her son and mourned the last looks of her son she would get. The vision of rope burns around her innocent son's dead neck stayed with her till the end of her days. There was a wake held at the home of Eive's mother and step-father, Preacher John Mullins. It was his step-father who officiated his service before taking him to be buried near his father in the Hopson Family Cemetery.

Freaky Fact:

Bob Mullins changed his Not Guilty plea to Guilty in an effort to be tried without a jury. Although he was given an 18-year sentence, he served only six and was released December 20, 1909. On his own death bed, Bob admitted to being the one who pulled the trigger that night.

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Works Cited

Fri, Jun 19, 1903 – Page 1 · Clinch Valley News (Tazewell, Virginia) ·

Find A Grave ( : accessed 07 February 2020), Hopson Cemetery, Skeetrock, VA., Evan "Eiv" Hopson memorial #167291754 with photographs.


About the Creator

Genealogy Freak

A mother, daughter, sister and "Star Stuff". I have been a storyteller all my life and obsessed with genealogy nearly as long.. I'm an observer and storyteller by nature. I research the lives of my ancestors and document their stories

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