At a little after 11:30 a.m. on July 30, 1896, a crowd gathered in front of the Fort Smith Federal Jail as James Calvin Casharago, aka George Wilson, of Faulkner County, was led from the jail toward the gallows.
The 26-year-old man, short in stature, was a good-looking man and wore a mustache. That day, his normally dark Italian complexion was replaced by the pallor caused by having spent the last sixteen months in prison.
The twelve-foot-high gallows were surrounded by a fence and 30 or 40 people had been lucky enough to obtain tickets to the “show.” The platform, constructed of large timbers, stood seven feet off the ground. It’s roof slanted back to the remains of the old rock wall that once surrounded Fort Smith.
Rev. Lawrence Smythe and a U.S. Marshal stood waiting on the platform. Since the death warrant had already been read to Casharago in his cell, all that remained was to give the condemned man an opportunity to say any last words.
Casharago calmly stated, “I am not guilty and if I could state it at the end of the rope after I fell through, I would do so.”
The prisoners’ hands and feet were bound, the noose set, and a black hood was placed over his head. After Rev. Smythe delivered a short sermon, the marshal pulled the lever releasing the trap door and justice was served. James Casharago would be the last man to be hung on Judge Isaac Parker’s gallows.
Casharago was the last male to carry the name of this Faulkner County pioneer family. Gilbert Casiraghi, later changed to Casharago, settled in the Republican area, 20 miles north of Conway, sometime after his arrival in Arkansas in 1850. His son, Lewis, permanently disabled after serving with Union forces during the Civil War, married Jane Havens from Conway County in December 1867. Eleven months later, James Calvin was born.
Lewis Casharago died while James was still a toddler and Jane remarried. They lived on her new husband’s farm and James attended the local school where he was well liked by those who knew him. Although some accounts paint a negative picture of him, James was probably no rougher around the edges than his counterparts of the late 19th century.
Nineteen-year-old James married Mary Salter in April 1888, settling down to raise a family. He went to work for Jim King, a locally respected business man and land owner, who soon involved Casharago and another young man, R.L. Garner, in a fraudulent land deal. King let the two men take the fall and in July 1889, they were indicted for forgery.
Casharago fled to Searcy County and then sent for his family. The law was hard on his heels, so he fled to Missouri. Life on the lam led him to commit his first robbery in Cleburne County and he began a life of theft and robbery across four states.
When his wife divorced him on grounds of desertion in March 1894, he finally came back home to Faulkner County to see her. He was arrested and held in the Morrilton jail for 40 days before he escaped.
It was then that he took on the alias George Wilson and changed his appearance. He made his way to northwest Arkansas, entered Indian Territory in April 1895 with a man named Zachoriah Thatch. He had earlier assisted Thatch when he needed medical attention.
When Thatch’s body was later found near Rock Creek where the two had camped, Casharago was arrested. The two men who arrested Casharago did not tell him at first why he was being arrested; he thought it was for the outstanding forgery warrant. He later found out that he was being arrested for the brutal murder of Thatch.
At this point, Casharago was still more concerned about being recognized than he was about being accused of murder. He felt confident of his innocence and that the real murderer would be found. He even identified the body as being that of his uncle, part of the ruse he and Thrash had created.
Circumstantial evidence was gathered and misinterpreted. A hearing was held while Casharago was held outside under a tree, unable to face his accusers. Even when he was brought in to make his statement, he continued to lie about his relationship with Thatch, not wanting to reveal his true identity. His lies ruined any credibility he might have had.
At the trial, no key witnesses were called and those that were called were questionable. Judge Parker gave one of his finest charges to the jury—it lasted an hour and twenty minutes—and the jury quickly returned a guilty verdict. Casharago is buried in Thorn Cemetery in Greenbrier. His gravestone says, “Only God knows.”
Photo as appeared in the Log Cabin Democrat.
Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.