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Will Purvis

Sentenced to death for the murder of Will Buckley in Marion County, Mississippi, in 1893, Will Purvis avoided death during an attempted hanging and escaped from prison when plans were made to hang him again. Purvis’s sentence was later commuted to life, and in 1898 he was pardoned when the state’s key witness changed his testimony. Will Purvis was compensated for his wrongful conviction in 1920 after the accomplice to the actual killer confessed.
In 1893, the Buckley family’s African-American farmhand was flogged by a group of Whitecaps, a white supremacy group similar to the Ku Klux Klan. In retaliation for the beating of his farmhand, Will Buckley, a Whitecap himself, decided to submit the incident and secrets of the band of Whitecaps to the Marion County, Mississippi, Grand Jury. While riding home from this encounter, Buckley, accompanied by his brother, Jim Buckley, and their farmhand, was shot and killed along a road leading to the Purvis home.
Two days later, bloodhounds were taken to the scene of the crime and within a few hours picked up a scent leading to the Purvis home. Will Purvis was 19 years old and a known member of the Whitecaps. On the basis of his affiliation, the scent trail, and a neighbor’s suspicion, Purvis was arrested for the murder of Will Buckley.
Purvis was tried before a jury in August 1893. The state’s case rested on the testimony of Jim Buckley, who stated that he and the farmhand had witnessed the killing of Will Buckley. When asked if he could name the gunman, he responded, pointing to Purvis, “Will Purvis there killed the man.” The farmhand, even though present when the crime occurred, did not testify in support of Jim Buckley’s statement. Purvis testified that at the time of the shooting, he was speaking with his neighbor, Louis Newsom. Multiple witnesses testified to support the alibi, but all were discredited as being “interested” in the case. Purvis was convicted of murdering Will Buckley and sentenced to death.
In January 1894, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld Purvis’s sentence and the date for his hanging was set for the beginning of February. When the scheduled date arrived, Purvis stood in front of over a thousand onlookers and again stated his innocence, saying, “You are taking the life of an innocent man, but there are people here who know who did commit the crime and if they will come forward and confess, I will go free.” When no one stepped forward, the noose was wrapped around Purvis’s neck and the black cap was placed on his head. The trap was opened and Purvis fell to the ground, for the rope had slipped from his neck. The sheriff attempted to hang him again, but the crowd stepped forward in protest, threatening to overtake the sheriff. Purvis was returned to his cell.
In June 1895, the Circuit Court of Marion County resentenced Purvis to death. The Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the sentence in November of the same year. A week later, a group of supporters helped Purvis escape and hid him in the forest for four months until Anselm Joseph McLaurin was elected governor. Purvis then surrendered to the sheriff, and Governor McLaurin commuted his sentence from death to life in prison.
Two years later, Jim Buckley stated that his identification of Purvis as his brother’s murderer was a mistake. Since nearly the entire case rested on Jim Buckley’s testimony, Governor McLaurin granted Will Purvis a full and unconditional pardon on December 19, 1898.
In 1917, Joseph Beard confessed on his deathbed that he was an accomplice in the murder of Will Buckley. He also named the perpetrator, thus clearing Purvis of any involvement in the crime. Mississippi’s law required the signature of witnesses and a signed copy of the deathbed confession. Since there was no written acknowledgement of the confession, the perpetrator could not be prosecuted. Three years later, the State of Mississippi passed legislation that compensated Purvis $5,000 for his services while incarcerated.
– Researched by Marla Dukler
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1893
Age at the date of crime:19
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID