Jackson Marion stood erect with a furrowed brow, hands gripping the lapels of his jacket.
Only the noose dangling before the convict’s eyes differentiated Marion from the other gentlemen of Beatrice, Nebraska, who were gathered on the scaffold to witness the city’s first — and last — execution.
Until the end, the twice-tried man denied fatally shooting his friend: “I confess that I am a sinner, the same as any other law-abiding citizen or church member. … All I have to say is God help everybody.”
No one intervened to stop the hanging on that day in March 1887. And no one present could have predicted that Marion’s case later would be dubbed by a local newspaper as “one of the most remarkable stories in the annals of criminal history.”
In fact, the one person who could prove Marion’s innocence beyond a doubt was, it would later be learned, reportedly in the Alaskan wilderness, oblivious to the fate his friend would suffer.
The Old West journey of William Jackson Marion and John Cameron began like many others.
In early spring 1872, the two young men set out from Grasshopper Falls, Kansas, to work on the railroad. The pair’s first stop was Wild Cat Creek, a town on the border of Gage and Pawnee Counties in the southeast corner of Nebraska. Marion’s mother-in-law, Rachel Warren, lived there and offered to let the men stay for several nights.
Warren scrubbed the friends’ socks, shirts and handkerchiefs and packed them neatly into trunks. To her, it was obvious that Cameron, 19, was much better equipped for life on the road — he owned a wagon, a team of bay mares, one fine pair of boots with caps on the tips and an additional heavier pair of boots. As for Marion, he had a team of mules and a revolver. The 23-year-old tried unsuccessfully to persuade his buddy to trade boots.
Marion and Cameron set off just after the first of May to work on the St. Joseph and Denver City Railroad. They stopped in Beatrice, a frontier town in Gage County that boasted a population approaching 1,000. Commerce and trade were booming along dirt streets lined with wagons and squared-off false-front buildings. It was here where Cameron supposedly was last seen alive.
Just days after their departure, Marion arrived late one night back at the Warren home at Wild Cat Creek, unexpected and conspicuously alone but carrying his friend’s belongings. He unhitched the wagon, pushed open the door and stood inside to warm his hands. “He always came home hollering, singing, cutting up, etc. — until that night,” Rachel Warren later would recall in court testimony.
Suspicion arose immediately. In the morning, Warren peered inside the wagon and found Cameron’s trunk with all of his clothes, pens and ink, just as she had packed them. On Marion’s feet were his friend’s finer pair of boots. Warren and her daughter — Marion’s wife, Lydia — quizzed him about Cameron’s whereabouts. He told them that he had bought out his friend, who had gone to see his uncle in Kansas.
Marion’s family didn’t buy it. His poor reputation as a “scoundrel” didn’t help. Lydia had heard a rumor, never confirmed, that her husband had killed a man in the Cherokee Nation. Lydia and her parents now suspected that he had killed his younger friend, and told him as much. As rumors circulated around town, and even his father told him that if he had killed Cameron, he had better “go and keep going.”
Marion slipped away into the prairie, not to be heard from for nearly a decade.
The Otoe Indian Reservation in the 1870s was on a gently rolling 43,000 acres of Nebraska’s finest and most fertile land — well-watered, wooded and a producer of luxuriant crops of hay and corn. It was there that a startling discovery was made in 1873.
One day in late March, a traveler passing through the Gage County farmland found a decomposing body half-buried in the muddy bank of a creek. The skull had been blasted with three bullet holes.
Gage County Coroner Job Buchanan assembled a four-person coroner’s inquest to determine the circumstances surrounding the death. Cameron’s suspicious disappearance in the area a year before made him a prime candidate for the person whose body was found. Lydia Marion and John Warren, her father, testified that the clothing, still intact, matched the woolen trousers Cameron was last seen wearing.
The inquest issued the following statement about the body: “The said John Cameron came to his death on or about the 4th of May 1872 by means of a bullet or bullets shot from a revolver in the hands of Jackson Marion.”
Few doubted the notion. It was easy to picture the way the scene had played out, as described in the Beatrice Weekly Express: While the two camped at a lonely place, Marion stole upon a sleeping Cameron in the night and shot him three times in the head with the intent of stealing his coveted wagon, boots and other belongings. The newspaper proclaimed Marion to be “adept at killing men,” a “hardened and remorseless wretch thus to murder a friend for the paltry value of a team and an old wagon.”
But with a crude law enforcement system, it would take 10 years to catch the man who long before had disappeared.
In 1880, the people of Gage County elected Nathaniel Herron as their sheriff. The Civil War veteran warmly known as “Cap” held the iron grasp of the law firmly in his hand. It was well known that when he went after a man, he did not give up until his “prize” was in custody — or dead.
Marion became one of the sheriff’s targets.
In December 1882, Marion was in jail in Sedan, Kansas, facing charges of grand larceny for stealing a wagon. Herron caught wind of his whereabouts and headed to Kansas to bring him back to Beatrice.
By early January 1883, Marion was right where Herron wanted him — in a cramped cell in the Beatrice jail, where he would remain for the next four years.
A young and rising attorney named R.W. Sabin had just been appointed district attorney in Gage County when he was handed a case he did not find particularly appealing. It was a murder case, but the killing had occurred 11 years before in a part of the country where no one settled for long. Surely witnesses to the slaying of Cameron no longer were in the area. A conviction was doubtful, Sabin thought.
After several months of faltering efforts to put together a case, the lawyer struck gold one day when he paid a visit to Rachel Warren. The woman recounted the days leading up to young Cameron’s disappearance, her suspicions about her son-in-law, the matching clothing. But the woman was nervous, claiming that if she testified before a jury, Marion would undoubtedly kill her.
“If you tell the jury what you have told me,” Sabin assured her, “Marion will never harm you because he will hang.” Warren agreed to take the stand against her son-in-law.
The several-day trial began on May 4, 1883. Sabin need not have worried. Warren upheld her promise with a stirring testimony. The jury was allowed to view the rags and remains of the exhumed body. Marion, when put on the stand, was unconvincing, though he professed his innocence. The defense failed to make a case.
It took the jury only a short time to deliberate the first-degree murder charge against Marion and return a guilty verdict. Marion was to hang.
His life was extended when the judge granted a retrial based on a technicality. He sat in jail another year.
By then, the trial was a sensation. In March 1885, his second trial opened to a courtroom packed with spectators. Chairs filled the aisles for extra seating, and yet hundreds were turned away. If the details of a slaying and egregious criminal were the morbid points of interest, the attorneys on each side were celebrities starring in the show.
The Gage County Democrat lauded the efforts of each side, but particularly praised the prosecutors, most notably the “worthy, talented and ambitious” Mr. Bibb, as he was referred to, who opened the trial with an “able and labored” speech.
The attempt of the defense attorneys was labeled a “noble effort.”
After a weeklong trial, jurors deliberated for about 40 minutes while Marion sat perfectly composed, waiting to find out his fate. His expression did not change when the guilty verdict was read.
At the sentencing the next day, the judge launched into a lecture before an even larger crowd “eager to hear the death penalty passed on Jackson Marion.” The judge sentenced Marion to be taken to the place of execution on June 26, 1885, and hanged by the neck until “Dead! Dead!! Dead!!!” — according to the Gage County Democrat.
Marion then was granted a stay of execution delaying his hanging until March 11, 1887. Meanwhile, an anti-death penalty sentiment emerged, and more than 1,000 people signed a petition to amend Marion’s sentence to life imprisonment. “The hanging of a man in Beatrice would be a disgrace to our city that we cannot afford at this time,” one Gage County Democrat editorial stated.
Nebraska Gov. John Milton Thayer granted a two-week stay of execution to again review the case and the petition. He finally declined to interfere and ordered that the sentence be carried out.
At 11:20 a.m. March 25, 1887, the sheriff stepped forward to administer justice. He adjusted the noose, slipped a black hood over Marion’s head of carefully combed hair and gave the signal. Marion was hanged at age 38.
Guards had to hold back the onlookers who rushed the scaffold and toppled the tall fence when his body dropped.
The body was cut down and carried to the street, where people stopped to catch a glance of the now-lifeless man. It was believed that the lengthy case had reached its weary end.
Long after the crowds dissipated, after Marion’s body was buried in an unmarked potter’s field, after his name disappeared from the headlines, one man refused to let it go.
William Wymore, Marion’s uncle, had given Marion a farewell handshake before watching him die. Now, years later, he was convinced of a radical belief. Not only was Marion innocent, he thought, but there had been no murder at all.
It wasn’t until four years after the execution, in August 1891, that Wymore finally heard word of what he long had suspected — John Cameron was alive.
Wymore traveled to LaCrosse, Kansas, where Cameron had been seen, and confirmed the suspicion. There, in the flesh, was the man who had been thought dead for decades, whose supposed death Marion had paid for with his own life.
Cameron said he had parted ways with Marion in Kansas because he was “afraid of a girl” he had gotten pregnant. He swapped clothes with an American Indian and fled to Mexico, where he stayed four years before wandering up to Alaska, back down through Colorado and eventually back to the Great Plains. He had heard nothing of Marion’s trials and execution.
When Wymore obtained a statement from Cameron, the Beatrice Express headline the next day proclaimed that “The Dead is Alive!” The Gage County Democrat declared “there is but little doubt that an innocent man has been executed, upon circumstantial evidence, to appease the public clamor for blood.”
Others reported seeing Cameron in the years that followed.
The news was met locally with some doubt, and Cameron himself didn’t come back to Beatrice to explain what happened. It was never determined whose body had been found in the creek, though there was speculation that he was the American Indian who had traded a blanket for Cameron’s clothes.
Marion’s was the seventh of 39 executions to take place in the state since its founding.
Marion was officially pardoned almost a century later, in December 1986, after his great-grandson, Elbert Marion, petitioned Gov. Bob Kerrey. Elbert Marion and other descendants later gathered at the Beatrice gravesite to add a headstone, marking the grave of a man history would sooner forget.
“It is a tragedy that this innocent man’s life was forfeit,” Elbert Marion wrote in a letter to the Gage County Historical Society in 1987. “But if there be good come from our efforts, the sacrifice need not have been in vain.”
Today, Marion’s grave sits in the shade of a tree in the Beatrice Cemetery on the south edge of town, bordered by a city pool on one side and cornfields on the others. Beneath the headstone is a display of the governor’s pardon proclaiming what Marion was never able to prove until it was too late: his innocence.