In early October 1887, 20-year-old William Woods and his longtime friend, John “Johnny” A. Hantz Jr., went on a hunting trip in the Cherokee Nation reservation land along the Verdigris River. They set out from their hometown of Kinsley, Kansas, with horses, hunting dogs and a wagon, and they headed first to Troy, Kansas. While in Troy, the two young men met a stranger named Henry W. Miller, who joined them in their expedition. In early November, Woods, Hantz and Miller reached an area called Commodore Hollow along the Verdigris River and set up camp. They hunted in that region for a while then made stops in Fayetteville – where Hantz sold his pony to raise funds for the remainder of the trip – and Mulberry Creek, before returning to Commodore Hollow again in late November, prior to heading home.
During this second stay in Commodore Hollow, Hantz and Miller left the camp to lay a trap line and neither had returned by dusk. Woods recalled that he became worried, so he lit a fire and fired occasional shots to help guide the men back to camp. Miller eventually returned, reporting that he had gotten lost in the woods. He said he had split up with Hantz earlier and the men had planned to meet back at the camp.
By morning, Hantz had not returned. Miller and Woods said they became concerned that Native Americans had attacked Hantz and decided to leave their camp. They headed to Coffeeville, where they parted ways to return to their respective homes. Woods wrote a letter to Hantz’s father explaining what had occurred. When Woods returned to Kinsley, he gave Hantz’s father the items that Hantz had left behind – a gun, glasses, and a trunk of clothes – and discussed the disappearance thoroughly with Hantz’s family.
Two of Hantz’s brothers went to search the woods where Hantz was last seen and discovered a body. Their father joined them and the three concluded that the body was not Hantz. In March 1888, another body was discovered in that area and Hantz’s father traveled there to determine whether the body was his son. Although the body was decomposed, the absence of certain teeth and other details – including the hat on the body and a knife found nearby – convinced him that this was the body of Hantz. There were holes in the back of the skull, which appeared to have been made by buckshot.
Shortly after this identification was made, Woods and Miller were arrested for the murder of Hantz. At the time of his arrest, Miller had a watch that had belonged to Hantz in his possession. At their joint federal trial in the Western District of Arkansas in the fall of 1888, the prosecution claimed Miller and Woods had killed Hantz while they camped by the Verdigris River in order to steal his money.
The witnesses for the prosecution were three men who had been camping at a nearby site on the Verdigris River – supposedly at the time when Hantz went missing. These three witnesses – Arnold Louther, T. M. Smith and Len Morrow – could not recall the specific dates of their hunting trip but all agreed that it had definitively been some time between November 1 and November 20. These men had visited with a group of three hunters who were camped nearby, and they identified Woods and Miller as two of the three. These men claimed that they had later seen Woods and Miller without Hantz and that Woods and Miller had given them a dog. The dog – which they believed had belonged to Hantz – was howling mournfully and relentlessly and would not leave the spot where Hantz had been camping. The men claimed to have heard shots at the nearby camp during the night, and it was suggested that these were the shots that killed Hantz.
In addition to the testimony of Louter, Smith, and Morrow, the prosecution placed great significance on the watch Miller had in his possession. Miller claimed he had sold Hantz a revolver on credit and Hantz had told him to hold onto the watch for security. The revolver was one of the possessions Miller had returned to Hantz’s father. A number of respected local people testified as to the good and peaceful character of both Woods and Miller.
The jury returned a guilty verdict and both men were sentenced to be hanged in April 1889. However, their adamant pleas of innocence eventually drew the attention of President Harrison’s Attorney General, William H. H. Miller.
Attorney General Miller ordered a thorough reinvestigation of the men’s case and found that their sentencing had been “against the law and evidence.” His reinvestigation found that the hunting party of Louther, Smith, and Morrow had crossed paths with Woods, Miller, and Hantz during the latter group’s first stay at Commodore Hollow. There were many confirmed sightings of Hantz after the first stay at Commodore Hollow from reputable witnesses who had not been discovered in the first trial. It was clear, therefore, that none of the incriminating evidence provided by this other hunting group related to the death of Hantz, since Hantz was alive for at least several weeks after their interactions and did not go missing until he, Miller and Woods made their second stop at Commodore Hollow on their way home.
Upon the recommendation of the Attorney General, Woods was pardoned by President Harrison on April 8, 1889. For unknown reasons, Miller was not pardoned at that time. Instead, President Harrison commuted Miller’s death sentence to a life sentence, stating “There are circumstances in this case which make me unwilling to confirm the death penalty.”
Miller remained in prison for over a decade after Woods’ pardon. Eventually, Miller reached out to Attorney General Philander Knox and again asserted his innocence. Knox investigated further and made the determination that both Woods and Miller were entirely innocent. His report does not go into the new evidence that he found to support this conclusion beyond that already identified about the timing of Hantz’s death, but it does state that such evidence was found. Following Attorney General Knox’s recommendation, President Roosevelt pardoned Miller on November 10, 1902.
- Meghan Barrett Cousino
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.