Polly Barclay was hanged in Wilkes County, Georgia, as a
co-conspirator in the murder of her husband on Friday, May 13, 1806.
A sensational murder trial also captivated the
population in 1806. The previous autumn Polly Barclay's husband had
been murdered in Wilkes County. The beautiful widow was then charged
as conspirator in the crime, found guilty, and sentenced to be hanged.
On Friday the 13th of May, 1806, she was placed on a
gallows just west of downtown Washington where she gave her life, the
first white woman hanged in Georgia.
Barclay - Another Murderous Woman?
seems like the title of this blog should be Female Murderers of
Georgia. While searching for information about Julia Force, and
especially Cora Lou Vinson, I was led to other "famous" female murder
cases in Georgia's history.
Polly Barclay is often
misstated as being the first woman hung for murder in Georgia. That is
incorrect, as that distinction belongs to Alice Riley of Savannah.
(We'll save her story for another post.) Point is, Polly Barclay was
actually the second woman to be hung for murder in Georgia.
Mrs. Barclay was tried and
convicted for the murder of her husband, most often simply referred to
as "Mr. Barclay," in 1806. The murder took place in the fall of the
previous year. This all happened near the city of Washington in Wilkes
Records regarding the murder
are difficult to find, and historians owe a debt of gratitude to Miss
Eliza A. Bowen for what is known. She wrote stories about Wilkes
County people and published articles in the Washington Gazette and
Chronicles from 1886 to 1897. Her manuscripts were compiled into a
book, The Story of Wilkes County, reprinted in 1950 and again in 1997.
The final chapter of the book,
which is cut off mid-sentence, with no additions yet to be found, is
about Polly Barclay and the murder of her husband. Several articles of
the murder have been written since, but none that I found contained
"new" information. Therefore I regard Miss Bowen's research as most
likely the closest thing we have to a portrayal of actual events.
Polly Barclay was actually a
conspirator in the murder of her husband. She did not pull the trigger
on the gun that fired the shot that killed him. She was, however, the
only one convicted and punished for the crime. Miss Bowen states, "All
the traditions concur in saying that Mr. Barclay was not killed by his
wife's hand. All the stories mention her lover and her brother...All
the sources of the story concur in saying that the actual doer of the
Polly's co-conspirators were
her brother William Nowland and her lover Mark Mitchum. Some say the
motive for murder was money, others say it was committed because Polly
wanted to be with her lover. It's likely a combination of the two.
Miss Bowen states, "From
tradition we learn that the murder took place in the fall or winter
[of 1805], after Mr. Barclay had sold his cotton in Augusta and
returned, that his wife was not at first suspected, but that suspicion
was aroused through something about the money, that then people
talked, and various suspicious circumstances were told which when put
together led to a belief in the guilt of his wife and her arrest."
Miss Bowen viewed and
transcribed minutes from the superior court sessions that took place
205 years ago this month. In them she discovered that trial commenced
after a true bill of murder was put forth against William Nowland and
Polly Barclay. On 8 May 1806, William Nowland was tried and found not
guilty. The next day he was to be a witness for the State. Seems like
a situation we would describe today as striking a deal with the
prosecution to testify for the State against another individual and
receiving immunity in that deal, but that is speculation on my part.
The next day, 9 May 1806,
Polly Barclay was put on trial. Opening statements, witness
testimonies, closing arguments, jury deliberation, and the verdict all
came in one day. The result was, "We the jury find the prisoner at the
bar guilty but recommend her to mercy."
What happened to the mercy, I
do not know. According to Miss Bowen's transcriptions, the Judge
(future U.S. Senator Charles Tait) in the trial handed down the
That you Polly Barclay be
taken from this bar to the place from whence you came, there to remain
until Friday the 30th, day of this present month of May, and that on
the aforesaid 30th, day of May you are to be taken by a proper officer
to a gallows previously to be erected in or near the town of
Washington, and then and there on the day aforesaid, between the hours
of ten o'clock in the forenoon and two o'clock in the afternoon, you
are to be hung by the neck until you are dead and may God have mercy
on your soul.
Here are the particulars of
the murder as told by Miss Bowen: "Tradition says that...There were
two men who came up the road at night fall [supposedly on a Saturday]
from the direction of Augusta and stopped at Mr. Barclay's cotton
house which stood on the road a short distance from his house, made
some noise, to make him suppose that some person was stealing his
cotton. There were some visitors at the dwelling house who reported at
the trial, that Mr. Barclay was not disposed to go out, but that his
wife urged him to do so. Shortly after he went, a shot was heard, and
those present reported that she said, 'that shot killed my husband.'
When found, he was still living but the ball had cut off his tongue.
He died in a few hours."
Mr. Barclay was buried, "it is
said," on the spot where he fell. It was marked "by two unhewn stones
which were placed upon it and they can be still pointed out on the old
Elberton and Augusta road a few miles beyond Sandtown. The grave is on
the edge of the road..."
In addition to the scenario
described previous, another major witness was revealed at Polly's
trial. In short, it was a young boy who witnessed a conversation in
which Polly offered her brother $200 to kill Mr. Barclay.
So what about Mark Mitchum,
you ask? Well, charges were never brought against him -- nolle
prosequi (to be unwilling to pursue). He supposedly ran away upon
hearing of the possible indictment.
Legend has it that Polly
Barclay was in denial when it came to her death sentence. Even when
the officer came to take her to the hanging tree, she grappled for a
piece of paper she saw in his pocket, believing it was a stay of
Something else that is often
commented on regarding Polly Barclay is her beauty: "All the lines of
tradition unite in reporting that the unhappy woman possessed uncommon
beauty...It also come down to us, that she put on a fine silk dress to
go to execution."
On the 30th day of May, in the
year of 1806, Mrs. Polly Barclay was hung on a large white oak tree
"which once stood on the north side of Main Street." Legend has it she
was not hung by a rope, but by a chain. Mrs. Barclay was buried in an
unmarked, undisclosed grave.
Conversations and Observations
By James Callaway -
January 11, 1913
Polly Barclay was the
first white woman hanged in Georgia. She did not die on the gallows,
but was hung in 1806, on an old oak, gnarled and storm-beaten now,
standing on the Lexington road in the Hayward grove; and hung not with
a rope but with a chain, and believers in the supernatural, especially
negroes, drive by the weird spot in haste to this day, and some of the
more superstitious of them declare that on dark, cloudy nights they
can hear the rattle of the clanking chains.
It was a noted case
and created a great sensation at the time. The scene was in
“Washington, Wilkes,” the historic old town, the grave still there and
the historic old oak. She possessed far greater attainments than Susan
Eberhart, though she had mind enough to easily dominate old man Spann.
Polly Barclay was a
magnetic woman, of personal charms, and called in her day something of
a fast beauty, with fascinating manners and attractive personnel. But
she never thought she would be hung, and expected pardon on the very
day of her execution. So sure of it that she dressed herself in her
best costume, ready for congratulations by her admirers, and when it
was the reverse instead of pardon, she bravely went to death in her
finest evening dress—the very same she had made to wear at her
Nor can it be said
she had a rough and uneducated jury, for even in those days Wilkes,
then a very large county, was peopled with the sons from the best
families of Virginia and North Carolina. Emigrants poured into Wilkes
even before the Revolution, and Gen. Elijah Clarke raised for his
command alone over 300 soldiers from Wilkes, and settlers came thick
after the Revolution. Old Wilkes was called the “hornet’s nest” of the
Revolution, and as Gen. Toombs expressed it, “these men fought for
their estates like feudal barons.”
Wilkes County’s first
court was ------------ Aug. 25, 1779, and the court was composed of
William Downs, Absalom Bedell and Benjamin Catchings, and the names of
the grand jurors were Stephen Heard, Barnard Heard, George Walton,
John Glass, Charles Bedingfield, Daniel Burnett, Thomas Carter,
Micajah Williamson, James McLean, Jacob Terrington, William R. Aycock,
Robert Day, John Gorham, Dionysius Oliver, Holman Freeman, Dr. Daniel
Coleman and Thomas Stroud. At this court nine persons were sentenced
to be hung, principally for treason.
At the opening of the
superior court held in Washington in 1784 George Walter was chief
justice. The first court house was built in 1785 and Hon. William
Smith was chief justice, and there was great dignity, and all the
barristers practicing in the court were required to wear gowns when
they argued a case, and the sheriff wore a gown and a sword as a badge
of his office, and preceded the judge into court, holding a drawn
sword, after the old English custom, and also the South Carolina
custom up to the Civil War.
The Washington tavern
at the time was run by Micajah Williamson, and the celebrities of the
county gathered there to discuss public events, and especially this
Polly Barclay case. The hotel had a “Gal in the Fountain” then, and
she had big influence. The tavern had as a large sign a portrait of
George Washington before the door, and on one occasion the baron, Gen.
John Clark, rode into town with too much old corn inside, and shot a
ball through the picture.
The tavern was a
rallying place for men of affairs and this Barclay case brought to it
for discussion of the politics of the day such men as John Dooly,
Samuel Davis, William and Gabriel Toombs, John Wingfield, Gen. David
Meriwether, William and Felix Gilbert, Joseph Henderson, Christopher
Irvin, Oliver Hillhouse, George Walton, Oliver H. Prince, John Colley,
Dr. Joel Abbott, Thomas Wingfield, Col. N. Long, Thomas Telfair, Gen.
John Clark, Job and John Callaway, John H. Walton, Lawrence Bankston,
Silas Mercer, Jacob Early, Peter Early, Lewis Parrott, Benjamin
Taliaferro, James Lamar, John Talbot, William Terrell, Zachariah
Lamar, G. Hay, Samuel Blackburn, John Appling, George Mathews, Sanders
Walker, Burnett Pope, Thomas Wooten. The descendants of these men are
scattered over the State, and the list of names shows the high
character of Wilkes’ population at the time, and the character of men
composing the juries.
So Polly Barclay had
a competent jury. So Susan Eberhart had a competent jury and a learned
judge. The supreme court had affirmed the judgment of the court below.
Gov. Smith, called to bring order out of disorder, was to vindicate
the law or cast it aside. Polly Barclay was an attractive, young woman
and married an elderly man in good circumstances. She became enamored
of a young man, a laborer on the farm of Barclay, and these two
conspired together and murdered old man Barclay. The both paid the
penalty of the law.