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The Haunstine Hanging: The Only Legal Hanging in Custer County, Nebraska

The Haunstine Hanging: The Only Legal Hanging in Custer County, Nebraska

                            Haunstine Grave: This is the ground where Albert E. Haunstine is buried.  It may be difficult to see the grave, but when I went to the grave, the ground was slightly sunk in.  A local farmer placed a brick in the center of the grave to mark the spot in case it was ever covered up.

This is the ground where Albert E. Haunstine is buried. It may be difficult to see the grave, but when I went to the grave, the ground was slightly sunk in. A local farmer placed a brick in the center of the grave to mark the spot in case it was ever covered up by loose soil being blown into the area.

                                Haunstine Tree: This tree is located approximately 90 meters from the grave in which Haunstine lies today.  Someone placed a rope on a branch after the lynching in 1891 to remind everyone of Albert Haunstine's actions and consequences.  The rope fell off quite a while ago due to weather, and the tree is dying with some of its branches breaking completely off.

This tree is located approximately 90 meters from the grave in which Haunstine lies today. Someone placed a rope on a branch after the lynching in 1891 to remind everyone of Albert Haunstine's actions and consequences. The rope fell off quite a while ago due to the weather, and the tree is dying with some of its branches breaking completely off.

THE STORY

What were a clock and parts of a wooden bench worth in 1888? Three men’s lives. That’s right; William Ashley, Hiram Roten, and Albert E. Haunstine. All three lived in the hills and valleys southwest of Callaway, Nebraska. Good friendships and overnight stays passed among them, until one fateful day in early winter.

On November ninth [some sources state this date as the sixth], 1888, Roten and Ashley traveled to the sod schoolhouse of which they were board members. It had been designated their duty to keep up the building throughout the season when it was empty. When they arrived, they noticed the small (but only) clock the building owned and some lumber (probably from a bench) missing. They also found fresh buggy and horse tracks outside, and decided to see who had visited the school. After notifying their families, Hiram and Roten headed off in the direction of the tracks, knowing not where they were headed to.

They were surprised to end up at the house of Albert E. Haunstine—good friend, involved community member, and the teacher at the sod schoolhouse. After questioning him about the stolen property, Haunstine quickly gave it back to the men, but as they turned to leave, the teacher shot them in the back. [Haunstine claims differently. For his side of the story, read his letter he wrote two days prior to his death.] He took their watches and about 40 dollars cash from the both of them and proceeded to drag the bodies near the barn and throw some hay on top of them.

Haunstine, 25, and his wife, 17, prepared their team of horses and traveled to Arnold, Nebraska. After changing teams there, they drove south along the South Loup River until they were near Madison, NE, where Albert Haunstine stayed to work to get some money while his wife went by train to stay in Columbus, NE, for a few days. She had asked someone to go and pick him up because she couldn’t the day he was supposed to arrive by train.

Meanwhile, the families of Roten and Ashley had become concerned, and began a search for them. Some friends and family members headed off toward Callaway, two or three went east to Mud Creek, and a group went to the school teacher’s (Haunstine’s) house. They found the place a mess, with animals running loose and items missing which clued in a hurried departure. Someone noticed a strange-looking stack of hay with hogs gathered tightly about it, and when upturned, proved to be pieces of Roten’s and Ashley’s bodies left—what the pigs had not devoured. The authorities were notified immediately.

When the young man at the train station was asked by Mrs. Haunstine to meet her husband for her, he recognized the description. It exactly matched the wanted notice which promised 900 dollars for Haunstine’s body—dead or alive. Five hundred dollars of the total was from the state, and the other four hundred from Custer County. The young man quickly got the attention of police, and someone was on their way.

They found Haunstine in the smoker car, with one of Hiram or Roten's rifles across his lap. It is said that he gave up without struggle, mainly because he was grateful it was authorities and not a bounty hunter.

A few months later, in March of 1889, Haunstine was tried in Broken Bow, Nebraska. The county attorney H. M. Sullivan and the sheriff Jim Jones were both good friends of Haunstine. After Sullivan doubted his fairness as county prosecutor, Judge Wall of Loup City replaced him as public prosecutor. The trial didn’t last too long, and Haunstine was sentenced to hang six months later in September of 1889. However, Haunstine’s lawyers made an appeal to the Supreme Court because Haunstine had pled insanity. Doctors and more experts were brought in to reach a verdict of whether Haunstine was sane or not. When a decision was finally reached long after the September hanging date, Albert Haunstine was again found guilty and sentenced to hang on April 17, 1891.

However, Governor Boyd had heard of the case and sent a reprieval of thirty days, which meant Haunstine could not be hanged until May 17. This created many hard feelings and disappointment toward Sheriff Jones because families had come from hundreds of miles away to watch that man hang in April, and had to go home for another month before they could see that happen.

Finally, Haunstine’s execution date arrived, but even as the crowds gathered around the courthouse, Sheriff Jones spoke to them. He told them a hanging would not occur that day, and mobs led by the family and friends of Roten and Ashley attacked the courthouse. They pushed the authorities inside and demanded the keys to Haunstine’s cell. Only after Judge Wall, a big, burly man, held back the crowd long enough for more authorities to help out did the crowd get forced back outside for another speech. A promise that a hanging would take place soon was made, and the impatient crowd again went away for a few days.

On May 23, 1891, crowds gathered for the final time at the Broken Bow courthouse for the hanging of Haunstine. The gallows were hidden from view of the public by boards, but at about 12:30, Roten’s brother, Eli, threw a chip of wood over the boards. On his signal, a huge group of kin and friends of the murdered men tore down the wood so that all could see Haunstine hang.

Soon after, Sheriff Jones brought the prisoner from the jail cell and up the 13 steps to the top of the gallows. After Haunstine gave a short confession and requested forgiveness from all that he had effected, the noose was slipped around his neck, and the trap door was sprung. As Haunstine fell, the rope snapped upward—it had broken! [Some sources strongly state that a person had cut halfway through the rope. Eli Roten was heard saying, "Since Haunstine killed two men, he should be hung twice!" Many versions of this historical event agree with the idea of the cut rope, but it was never proven to be true.]

Again Haunstine climbed the 13 steps, again a rope was placed around his neck, and again he dropped through the trap door. This time, though, the rope was secure, and a few minutes later Haunstine was pronounced dead by the local doctor.

Haunstine’s brother was given the body, and buried it on a hill near their homestead. About 90 meters from this grave stands a tree. After Haunstine’s execution, a rope was placed on a branch of the tree by an anonymous person to remind everyone of Haunstine’s actions and consequences. The rope fell off years ago due to wind and weather, but for those who know the story, the tree still stands as a symbol of what happened. Albert E. Haunstine had stolen a clock and some lumber, and had died for it.

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Here is a letter written by Albert E. Haunstine two days prior to his May 23, 1891 execution. It does create curiosity to know which side of the story is true. (Errors found in the letter were in the original article.)

"STATEMENT OF A. E. HAUNSTINE:

Since the general public has felt a great interest concerning my sad fate and is desirous to learn the real facts as to whether I malicously shot and killed Hiram Roten and William Ashely without provocation, I hereby state, for the good of all concerned and myself in particular, that I have not been and am not the vicious man my fellowmen think I am. My life and my actions since Governor Boyd's reprieve, speak for themselves.

I cannot but feel thankful for the prolongation of my life. Mr earnest prayer is that God may bless him and prolong his life for many days. The facts of my troubles are as follows:

Two weeks previous to the shooting of the above named men, I was accused of petty thieving, the murdered men with others, annoyed, provoked and threatened me with bodily injury. When they were carrying their threats too far, I came to Broken Bow, consulted a lawyer concerning the whole affair. The advice was to protect myself. During the two weeks previous to the shooting I was still annoyed by these men. At one time, someone maliciously poisoned water that I had hauled in a barrel from my neighbors. Evidence of poison was shown after I had watered one of my horses. After the horse drank the water, it took sick and showed symptoms of poisoning.

On the fatal day, Hiram Roten and William Ashley came to my house without authority, to search for a few things which had been taken from the district school house. I was sitting in the door of my house when Hiram Roten and William Ashley advanced. Mr. Roten carried a Winchester across his arm when he advanced.

I invited them into my house and invited them to dinner. They would not partake of any dinner. An altercation of words took place, and so exasperated my temper that for a few minutes I was beside myself and in the heat of passion, shot one. To protect myself, I shot the other, who was attempting to draw a pistol from his pocket.

These are the facts concerning my whole trouble. It is well known that when Mr. Roten was leaving his house, he took a pistol and Winchester rifle with him. His own wife can state that, after arming himself with a pistol he returned to the house and said he believed he would take his rifle. 'I hear that Albert is a bad boy of late. If I don't need it, I will leave it in the buggy.' This is the substance of his words.

My trouble has not come without cause. Had these men not provoked me, I would never have shot them. I thought too much of them to to them any harm but when they came to search my house without a warrant, armed with pistol and rifles, it provoked and angered me to desperation. All that had taken place rushed to my mind and in an instance I did as I was told, protected myself.

I am about to suffer the penalty of the law for a crime to which I was driven. However, I am sorry for my rash act and beg forgiveness of the families of the dead men and all whom I have injured. I am also sorry for all the trouble I have been to my fellow citizens, hoping that they will forgive me, and that nothing shall remain in your minds, other than the sad consequence of following bad advice.

Signed Albert E. Haunstine, in presence of Chas. M. Parkhurst and Rev. Tomas P. Haley." As written in The Merna Record (exact date of newspaper is unavailable)