An Innocent Man Hanged

It’s time for a story from the Wymore side of the family.  The people in this story are not in our direct line, but they are related.

William Jackson Marion, sometimes called Jackson, was born May 13, 1849 in Mahaska County, Iowa where many members of the Wymore and McMains families lived, and some still do.  His parents were Tipton Marion and Margaret McMains Marion.  Several members of the Wymore and McMains extended families, including Maxine Wymore Renschler’s great-grandparents, Eliot and Lavina McMains Wymore, moved to Gage and Pawnee Counties, Nebraska, in the 1860s.

William Jackson Marion
William Jackson Marion

William’s mother, Margaret McMains Marion died in Gage County in 1868.  Her grave is unmarked.  She left a family of ten children ranging in age from 20 down to 2 years.  Along with six other area men, William joined Company A, First Regiment Nebraska Cavalry on June 22, 1869.  All of the company was discharged on November 1, 1869.  On the 1870 census William is living with his father and siblings at Liberty in Gage County.

William Jackson Marion and John Cameron, who boarded together in Clay County, Kansas, journeyed in May 1872 to Wild Cat Creek in Gage County, Nebraska to visit John and Rachel Warren, Marion’s in-laws. The day before they left Kansas, Marion purportedly signed a contract to purchase a team of horses from Cameron for $315, paying $30 down. It was agreed that Cameron would keep the horses until Marion paid the balance. Marion and Cameron left the Warren place in mid-May, saying they were heading west to work on the railroad. A few days later, Marion returned alone to Gage County with Cameron’s belongings.  His wife, Lydia, quizzed him about Cameron’s whereabouts.  He said he had bought out his friend who had left in a hurry.

The Otoe Indian Reservation was located in southern Gage County and extended into northern Kansas.  In 1873 a decomposing body half-buried in the bank of a creek was found there.  The skull had three bullet holes. A coroner’s inquest was called.  William’s wife Lydia and her father testified that the clothing matched what Cameron was last seen wearing.    The inquest issued the following statement: “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.”  The Beatrice newspaper, calling Marion “a hardened and remorseless wretch thus to murder a friend for the paltry value of a team and an old wagon,” described a made-up murder scene.  In 1880 Nathaniel Herron was elected sheriff of Gage County.  He decided he would bring Marion to justice.  In December 1882 Marion was in jail in Sedan, Kansas for stealing a wagon.  Herron headed down to Kansas and brought Marion back to the Gage County jail at Beatrice where he would remain for the next four years.

A trial was held in May 1883 at which Rachel Warren, Marion’s mother-in-law, testified that she thought her son-in-law had killed Cameron.  The jury was shown the ragged clothes and the remains of the body. Marion, when put on the stand, professed his innocence.  But the defense, which had been hired by Marion’s uncle, William Wymore, was inept.  The jury deliberated just a few minutes and returned a verdict of guilty of first-degree murder.  Without any evidence but the testimony of a jilted wife and her parents, William Jackson Marion was sentenced to hang.

However, the Nebraska Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case for a new trial because Marion had been sentenced by a judge rather than a jury. At the time of the crime, the law required jury sentencing, although by the time of the trial, the law had been changed to allow sentencing by a judge. Marion v. Nebraska, 16 Neb. 349 (1884).  In March 1885 Marion, after a week-long second trial was convicted, and sentenced to death, this time by a jury — a result that the state high court affirmed. Marion v. Nebraska, 20 Neb. 233 (1886).  Meanwhile, public sentiment was changing and more than 1,000 persons signed a petition requesting Marion’s sentence be amended to life in prison.  The Nebraska governor reviewed the case but ordered the sentence carried out.   Marion, age 38, went to the gallows in Beatrice on March 25, 1887, proclaiming, as he had from the beginning, that he was innocent. The only member of his family present was his uncle, William Wymore, who shook Marion’s hand as he walked to the gallows.

Marion’s body was buried in an unmarked grave in Potter’s field at the Beatrice cemetery.  However, William Wymore was convinced his nephew was innocent.  Four years later, Wymore heard that Cameron was alive. He traveled to LaCrosse, Kansas, where Cameron had been seen, and found him.  Cameron explained that he had absconded to Mexico in 1872 to avoid a shotgun wedding in Kansas. Then he traveled to Alaska.  He had heard nothing of Marion’s trial and execution.  When Wymore obtained a statement from Cameron, the Beatrice newspaper headline proclaimed “The Dead is Alive!”  It was never determined whose body had been found in the creek.

William Jackson Marion was the seventh person to be executed in Nebraska.  In December 1986, Marion’s great-grandson petitioned Governor Bob Kerry, who on March 25, 1987, the centennial of the execution, granted William Jackson Marion, posthumously, a full pardon based on innocence.  A grave marker, containing a copy of the pardon, was erected on Marion’s grave by his grandson.