The Hanging of Missy Burns

“They gonna’ hang you, Missy Burns!”

The pastor looked up from his bible with a pained expression, but I simply smiled. “Give me just a moment, pastor.” I stood and stepped up on to my seat so I could see out the barred window in to the alleyway. There at the end was Timothy, all twelve years and 90 pounds of him, looking all bedraggled, yet grinning like a Prince counting his horde.

“Thank-you, Timothy,” I called in a cheery voice, “It had nearly slipped my mind.”

“I don’t know how you can be so cheerful with that little beast,” the pastor sighed as I took my seat again, “cruel he is to be taunting you so.”

“It’s somewhat complex- he was my little project you know. I was trying to draw him in, get him back to school, and I was making progress before all this unpleasantness.”

In the end, I simply had not run far enough, had not covered my tracks sufficiently, counting on the aftermath of the war to muddy the waters. It is a lesson I had learned the hard way once before, but time has a way of blurring the hard-won wisdom of years past, even in one such as I. Mr. Cletus Williams had pursued me for more than two years, convinced (correctly, of course) that I had murdered his brother Clayton and (incorrectly) that I had made off with his fortune. I had made an assumption that the Union Army would sweep through town and Clayton’s death would have been lumped in with any other misfortune that befell the community; however, the Blue Coats had simply destroyed the local militia and moved on, leaving the town virtually untouched but for one fresh corpse and witnesses telling of Missy Burns galloping out of town on Clayton Williams’ own horse.

“A Christian act of kindness? You repeatedly show me that you are so much more than the murderess you have been named.”

“You do need to stop fretting so much over the fate of my soul, Pastor. I appreciate your concern, truly I do, but there are others who could benefit even more from your attentions. Timothy, for example. I’m afraid I have disappointed him, betrayed him, even. Right now he needs guidance and comfort far more than I.”

The pastor was not elderly, perhaps fifty years old, but at that moment he looked ancient. He had been coming to visit me in my cell every day for the past week, since the day it became clear I was destined to hang. Partly it was rote discharge of duty, but there had been a bit of curiosity as well and our conversations had become quite intense as he probed my own understanding of faith and morality. It pained me that he labored under the erroneous assumption that I was soon to die for he took my calm acceptance of my fate and my concern for those who might be harmed by my death as something far more meaningful than it actually was.

Mercifully for all concerned the deputy interrupted us, tapping on the bars to my cell he said “Miss? Sorry to interrupt, but the undertaker is here.”

“Oh! Excellent. Thank you, Pete. Pastor, I do believe I will be seeing you tomorrow at the gallows, yes?”

“Of course, my dear,” he sighed as he rose to leave, “and if you feel the need, please send someone for me, at any time.”

“That’s very kind of you, and I may, perhaps if I have trouble sleeping.”

Pete opened the cell and led the pastor out, then returned a moment later with Mr. Burke, the undertaker. Contrary to stereotype Willy Burke was a smiling, rotund and jovial man, though he possessed the unique ability to project profound concern and sympathy at will. It was all an act, of course- he was a pure businessman, but he understood that concern and empathy were part of the business. He had a contract with the town to dispose of the remains of the condemned. Me, in this case.

“Miss Burns! So nice to see you in such good spirits so close to your Final Day On This Good Earth!”

“Well, Mr. Burke, I don’t see any purpose to being in anything other than good spirits, do you? The sun is shining, and so many good folk such as you are coming to visit this day. Tell me, is my casket prepared?”

“That is why I am here, to see to it that you are satisfied… though I do wish you would consent to allow mw to handle the burial. I know you trust that Negro, but…”

“Now, now, none of your ‘but’s’, please- I have made my own arrangements and I beg you respect them.”

Pete had opened my cell and Mr. Burke stepped inside, collapsing in to the padded chair the Sheriff had so kindly provided for my visitors.

“Of course, Miss. Just that Joseph is such a slow sort and all… I could at least check up on him and see that the job is done proper.”

“That’s very kind of you, but Joseph knows what I want. I’m the first official hanging this little town has seen- the first murderess convicted in the fine new courthouse. I would like my grave to be a private place. I’m certain you understand and you have been more than adequately compensated…”

One thing Clayton’s brother had failed to accomplish had been to deprive me of my fortune- every penny of Clayton’s gold had been accounted for and he had no claim on my estate. I had arranged to have a delightful elderly Negro named Joseph (“Not a bit more, not a bit less, jus’ Joseph if you please, ma’am”) claim my body in a casket I purchased from a local carpenter. Joseph had tearfully memorized my instructions and I knew I could rely on him. Joseph was the heir in my will, keeping my few possessions and a tidy sum of money, the rest being given to the Pastor to further good works in the town. Such arrangements made it terribly difficult for Mr. Williams to gain any sympathy for his outrageous claims.

So I signed Mr. Burke’s contract after carefully reviewing the terms and ensuring nothing was amiss. Pete witnessed the document for us before escorting Mr. Burke from my cell. Once he was gone the Deputy returned.

“I do trust him, Pete, but if I might impose on you, I would dearly appreciate it if you could make certain he respects my wishes?”

“Oh, don’t you worry yourself on that, Missy. I’ll see that ol’ Willy stays in his place…” his voice trailed off.

“What is it, Pete?” I asked, my voice oozing concern for his wellbeing.

“Mr. Carlton wants to see you.”




“He’s just tryin’ to do his job… he’s your lawyer…”

“I know that. There is nothing more for him to do. I admitted my crime- I murdered Clayton Williams. The jury heard the case and rendered its verdict. It is done.”

“But he… Clayton tried to…”

“It makes no difference, Pete. I knew what Clayton would do when I confronted him. I went there to kill him. I’m guilty.”

Pete stopped then. It was tough on him, being only nineteen and so smitten with me, but he also had a deeply abiding sense of duty. In a way my insistence on seeing my sentence carried out made sense to him in a way that others had a very difficult time understanding. Mr. Carlton was trying to do his own duty as well- he certainly had enough to work with what with my extradition and trial; however, for me this was not at all about justice. I had allowed him to make an appeal, but the result had been a foregone conclusion given the turmoil after the war.

The day passed quickly enough as I was treated to a steady parade of visitors. It came to me via some of these folks that Mr. Williams was quite put out by the way people were treating the woman who murdered his brother. I actually had some sympathy for his position for I, too, wished this episode were not attracting so much attention. This was going to be very public. That was a source of some trepidation for me.

When night fell it was a relief. The visitors stopped coming and I could begin to prepare for my upcoming ordeal. I requested an immense meal, heavy with beef and eggs, milk and nearly a pound of fresh baked bread. Pete watched in amazed disbelief as I methodically dispatched a feast fit for five men. We talked well in to the evening and I found myself feeling deep regret that come morning I would never be able to spend time with Pete again.

Morning came quietly. I had not slept; rather I meditated in a semi-conscious state I had learned to employ centuries before. The execution would be unpleasant to say the least: I can tolerate a great deal of pain, but this does not mean that I enjoy it, and this promised to be particularly difficult. I knew how my body reacted to injuries and I was not looking forward to returning to consciousness. My meditation was directed towards preparing for those first moments of pain and disorientation.

I had set out clothes for this day and I dressed at the break of dawn. I let the sheriff know that I would prefer not to be disturbed until it was time to go to the scaffold and he agreed to keep people away, including the pastor. In a deep state of relaxation I let my senses expand, drinking in the sounds and scents of the new day. As morning progressed I could hear the crowd growing, people conversing- speculations about how I would comport myself, or would the hanging be clean. I could pick out individual voices, people I knew, some somber, some not. I could hear Timothy, suddenly a subdued little boy, not coming to taunt me from the alley outside my cell, and the murmured tones of the pastor speaking with first one person, then another.

They began testing the gallows and the crowd began to swell. Though destined for greatness this was still a small town, people were coming from some distance to witness this first hanging. I listened to the mechanical release of the trap, the plunging of the weighted sack, the sudden taught snap of the rope. Calmly I analyzed the information, the time elapsed between the opening of the trap and the snap of the rope- the hangman was adjusting the drop and I trusted he knew his business. I was light enough that I need not fear decapitation (something I am certain I could not survive)- I simply hoped that the end would be as swift and painless as those who extolled the virtues of the long drop claimed.

Finally, a tap on the bars brought me back to my immediate surroundings. I looked up to see the Sheriff and the Judge, along with Pete.

“It’s time, Missy,” Pete whispered.

“Yes, I suppose it is,” I sighed straightening up and brushing at my dress to smooth the pleats and folds, “Shall we?”

The sheriff took me by right arm and led me out of the cellblock. The door to the office was open and bright sunshine spilled over the scarred wooden floor and dusty furniture. The sky was perfectly cloudless and brilliant blue, the day warm and dry with just enough light breeze to render it delightfully comfortable. We stepped out on to the porch and I saw the crowd turn to stare at me as I was led down the steps and across the center of the town to the gallows. I found myself counting my steps from the porch to the base of the steps to the gallows- 169. I gave a small laugh and Pete must have heard me because he reached out as if to steady me, thinking I was becoming emotional, perhaps.

“I’m fine, Pete,” I whispered, “I was just admiring somebody’s attention to detail: 169 steps to the gallows, thirteen times thirteen.”

The Pastor was there and overheard. He looked stricken, but he held his bible to his chest and began a quiet invocation to God as I was led up the steps (thirteen again- somebody had far too much time on their hands). The Judge turned to the crowd (I would estimate no more than five hundred souls) and began reading out the finding of the court. I searched faces in the crowd and finally found Timothy off to one side near the front. He was crying and it pained me more deeply than anything else about this entire sad affair.

It was the Pastor’s turn next and he led the crowd through a pair of Hymns that I found to be peculiar, but not inappropriate. If anyone had doubted the Pastor took a dim view of the day’s proceedings they could hardly doubt it any longer. Many were the uncomfortable faces below me, and what little there had been of an air of the carnival had fled.

“Does the condemned have any last words?”

“Please, yes,” I replied, then raising my voice, “I murdered Clayton Williams and I have never maintained that I did not. He was a coward, a lecher, a thief and a brigand and if any of the men in this town had had a single shred of decency they would have spared me the trouble of putting an end to the blight his miserable existence inflicted upon the world. This town is the better for him being in his grave.”

The Judge looked grim as he stepped back and the Pastor followed me to the trap over which the noose hung.

“Pastor, do promise me that you will look after Timothy?”

“Of course, my dear, of course. If you have any final desire to cleanse your soul before going to God, now would be the time.”

My hands were drawn behind me and bound at the wrists.

“You do the praying, Pastor, I’ve never been particularly good at it. And thank-you again.”

The Sheriff wrapped a cord about my ankles and cinched it tight, binding my feet. A hood was offered and refused and then the Sheriff settled the noose over my head. Another pair of hands adjusted it, placing the large looped knot behind my left ear and cinching it down so as to prevent it slipping off over my head. There were murmured protests from the crowd.

“Missy,” Pete’s voice sounded behind me to the right, “I think you should have the hood.” He sounded as if he were desperately trying to avoid being ill.

“I don’t need it, Pete.”

“It’s not for you, Missy- a hanging is an ugly thing…”

“So they’ll come to see me hang, but be upset if it’s not so pretty? Can you imagine how little I am moved by their plight?”

“Missy, please… I don’t want to see your face.”

That made me reconsider because it was clear Pete was having a terrible time with this, so I relented and the noose was removed and the hood descended over my face, sealing out the light. The noose was placed again, and positioned.

Everybody stepped back. Despite everything, all the preparation, all the certainty that this was nothing more than an inconvenience, my heart began to pound. I might know that death had little hold on me but the primitive, reflexive parts of my mind were not interested in the nuances. I forced myself to remain still, breathing evenly as I waited. What was taking so long? What more could they possibly-

A mechanical “clack” signaled the tripping of the trapdoor and I instinctively tried to throw myself back as my footing failed- weightless, falling then pain exploded in my head as if I had been struck by a massive bell clapper and the rope snatched about my neck like the gnarled fist of Hercules…

2 Responses to “The Hanging of Missy Burns”

  1. Greetings. Your blog is fascinating and I look forward to reading more and learning more about you.

  2. The above comment was first posted on 06/27/2003 before being re-posted here today.