Scott County Historical Society
Scott County, Virginia

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Hanging of McDaniel Rhea Alias Baxter S. Pate

By OMER C. ADDINGTON

     One hundred and thirty-five years ago come June 25, 1993, Baxter S. Pate was hanged at Estillville (now Gate City) up in a vale on Clinch Mountain for the murder of John Luttrell. The crime was committed in an upper room of the old Compton's Hotel, now a vacant lot opposite Quillen Hardware. Pate was the second execution by judicial decree in Scott County.

     Pate wrote the following letter to his grandfather, John Williams, dated at Estillville, VA on June 11, 1858.

I am here loaded with heavy irons in the jail at Scott County, Virginia, awaiting my execution, surrounded with but few friends, away from my dear father, brothers and sisters. Oh, that I had stayed with you and not have been persuaded off, my situation would have been quite different from what it is now, but I murdered a man without just cause, but alcohol the king of evil spirits is to blame.

You requested me to try to meet you in a better world. I hope to do so by the grace of God who is all mercy and who will deal out with a liberal hand to the truly penitent, and I am pleading continually at the foot of the cross for mercy. And ere the day comes I hope to obtain the pearl of great price meet you with all God's good people in the kingdom of immortal glory, where God will ever bless us in his wisdom.

Give my best regards to Bel, Drona, Polly, Jane and John Hensley, also William Bird. Tell them all to try to meet me in Heaven for I have not time to write to them all individually for I must Devote my time in making preparations to meet God and you all in Heaven.

Farewell, Farewell, my dear friends until we meet in Heaven.

The letter was signed Bacchus Pate.

     Drayton S. Hale, an eye witness" gives the following account of the hanging.

     "The wagon bearing the doomed man from the old jail wended its way slowly down and up to the gallows, Pate nicely dressed and sitting on his coffin.

     As soon as Little Moccasin Creek, the green woodland set in, the air was fragrant with the wild grapevine bloom, the white capped alders on either side of the sweet mountain, and wild birds were singing. It seemed to me that truly every prospect was pleasing and only man was vile. That poor fellow seemed to take in every object as he must have realized it to be the last view he would ever have of nature's peaceful loveliness. Soon the grim gallows were reached and beside it was an open grave. The prisoner, two ministers and Dr. Herron ascended the trap door. A guard of a hundred men, under the charge of Captain James D. Vermillion, stood in a circle around the mountain. The mountain sides were covered with humanity, even the trees were loaded with people (said to have been 5,000).

     Reverend Samuel Gaines preached the funeral and Rev. Reuben Steele led in prayer and they sang.

     "Roll on, sweet moments, roll on, and let the poor pilgrim go home, go home.

     "Then Pate arose and in a clear voice gave out an old hymn and led the first verse being as follows:

     And am I born to die To lay this body down? And must my trembling spirit fly into a world unknown? A land of deepest share, un-pierced by human thought; the dreary regions of the dead where all things are forgot.

     "Then they handed him a Bible and he read the 121st Psalm. As he read the first lines he glanced at the steep slope of Clinch Mountain. When he had read the chapter he gave a solemn warning to young men. 'Oh, I would give ten thousand worlds if I could only recant the deed that brought me to this fate. This is what the whiskey bottle has brought me to.'

     "When the death cap was drawn over his face by Sheriff Rufus Fugate, Pate, in a loud voice said, "Sheriff tap the trap door with your hatchet before you cut the rope."

     Some people, who were present at the hanging, doubted that Baxter Pate was actually hanged.

     Thomas Strong, one of the guards at the hanging, said, "I do not believe Pate was hanged because of some very strange actions and maneuvers which took place that day."

     Mr. Hale further states, "Twenty years after the hanging I spent the night with an old gentleman in Russell County, Virginia, who advised me that Pate was not hanged but lived in one of the Western states. Mr. Kelly made these remarks as a positive statement."

     The letter which Pate wrote from the Estillville jail in 1858, resulted in the plan which saved his life by means of a fake hanging. He was placed alive in the casket which his Brother Masons had brought and hauled back toward home. He was freed at the Tennessee-North Carolina line and headed for Texas where he prospered. The hindquarter of a mule, substituted for his body, was given a proper burial in the family cemetery.  No one now remembers which field stone marks the grave.

     Two persons were sent from Scott County shortly thereafter to open his grave and verify his death, but were prevented from doing so under threat of instant death, which no doubt would have been carried out.

     Drayton S. Hale was an eye witness to the hanging that took place June 25, 1858. He tells about the hanging of one man. If there had been two men Mr. Hale would have said so. The name Baxter S. Pate cannot be found in the Scott County Court Records. The name McDaniel Ray is.

     The following Court Record proves that McDaniel Rhea and Baxter S. Pate were the same person:

     "At a Circuit Court begun and held for Scott County at the Courthouse thereof on Monday, the 17th day of May, 1858. Present the Honorable Samuel V. Fulkerson, Judge.

     The Grand Jury (names omitted) having received their charge were sent to their apartment and after sometime returned into the Court and presented an indictment against McDaniel Rhea for murder a true bill.

     "At a Circuit Court continued and held for Scott County at the Courthouse thereof on Monday, the 24th day of May , 1858. Present the same Judge as on Saturday. McDaniel Rhea, late of the County of Scott, laborer, who stands indicted of murder. was led to the bar in custody of the sheriff of this county, whereupon came a Jury to sit (names of the Jurors omitted).

     ''The jurors were elected and sworn in conformity with the provisions of the Act of Assembly for the trial of the said McDaniel Rhea upon the indictment aforesaid, and the jury sworn as aforesaid, having fully heard the evidence were with the consent of the prisoner, committed to the Sheriff of this county, who is directed to keep them together without communication with any other person,' and to cause them to appear here tomorrow morning at 8 o'clock. Whereupon an oath was administered to Thomas W. Carter and William D. Nottingham, Deputy Sheriffs of this county, to the following effects. 'You shall well and truly to the best of your ability, to keep this Jury, and neither speak to them yourselves, nor suffer any other person to speak to them touching any matter relative to this trial, until they return into Court tomorrow, and the said McDaniel Rhea is remanded to jail.'

     "At a Circuit Court continued and held for Scott County at the Courthouse thereof on Tuesday the 25th day of May, 1858. Present: The same Judge as yesterday. McDaniel Rhea, late of the County of Scott, laborer, who stands indicted of murder was again led to the bar in custody of the Sheriff of this county, and the Jury sworn in yesterday, for the trial were brought into Court in the custody of the Sheriff-of this county, and upon their oath do say that the said McDaniel Rhea is guilty of murder in the first degree, in manner and form as in the indictment against him is alleged. Whereupon it being demanded of him if anything for himself he had or knew to say why the Court here to judgment and execution against him at and upon the premises should not proceed. He said nothing but what he had before said.

     Therefore, it is considered by the Court that he be hanged by the neck until he be dead, and the execution of this judgment be made and done upon him the said McDaniel Rhea by the Sheriff of Scott County on Friday, the 25th day of June, next, between the hours of ten in the forenoon and two in the afternoon of the same day at the usual place of execution, and thereupon the said McDaniel Rhea is remanded to jail."

Note: McDaniel Rhea, alias Baxter S. Pate, was from the Bee Log Community of Yancey County, North Carolina.

 

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