June 29, 1996
Photo shows Henry T. Armstrong, convicted of murder in Noble county in 1909. Does his tormented ghost still roam through the courthouse park?
Gallows Under Construction are shown prior to the hanging of Henry T. Armstrong in 1909. Planks needed to complete the project are visible in foreground. Carpenters on the platform evidently had to work around curious officials and other spectators, including young boys standing on the steps.
Completed Gallows underwent inspection by local officers shortly before the hanging of Henry T. Armstrong on November 19, 1909, in the Noble county courthouse park. A high fence prevented passersby from seeing the gallows.
The legend of the ghost of Mr. Armstrong at the Noble county courthouse has been almost forgotten here in recent years, but to earlier generations the story was a powerful means of ushering pre-pubescent Perry males to the threshold of manhood. As described in an earlier column, wide-eyed youngsters were led to the courthouse park at night and told to call out loudly: "Mr. Armstrong, Mr. Armstrong, what did you do that made them hang you?" They were told they would hear "nothing, absolutely nothing," in reply. How did that get started? Let me tell you about it.
Henry Armstrong, 59, was executed by hanging on the morning of November 19, 1909, on the lawn of the Noble county courthouse. His body was then interred in a local cemetery despite his warning that if he was buried here his spirit would haunt this place. That's the stuff legends are made of, and for nearly 90 years stories have been told about the condemned man's ghost roaming the courthouse park after dark.
Mr. Armstrong was convicted of first degree murder in the death of Isaac Fell, a Noble county farmer about 36 years old, on Saturday, December 19, 1908. The killing took place on a rural Noble county road on the Otoe reservation near the Bliss/Marland area. Mr. Fell's body was found six days later, on Christmas day, in 16 feet of water in an abandoned well about three and a half miles south of Morrison, inside the Payne county line. The victim was hauled there, his body covered by a pile of hay, on a wagon driven by Mr. Armstrong and a younger companion, Albert Mitchell, 20. The murder site was about 18 miles north of the well in Noble county.
Mr. Fell had been shot twice in the head with a .44 caliber six-shooter. His wife reported him missing to Sheriff Austin C. Nicewander when he failed to contact her after leaving home the morning of December 19 for his job shucking corn on the Arkansas River. Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Mitchell immediately became suspects when the sheriff learned they were among the last to see Mr. Fell the day he left his family. Mr. Armstrong never wavered in protesting his innocence, but Mr. Mitchell broke down soon after his arrest and told details of the killing. He blamed his older accomplice with firing both bullets into the victim's head. Mr. Mitchell also was accused of first degree murder in the crime but was judged insane and committed to an asylum.
In his last few minutes on earth, Mr. Armstrong appeared stoic. He was led to the gallows by Father Willebord of St. Rose of Lima Catholic church; Hugh Cullivan, a Catholic layman; Sheriff Nicewander and Deputy Phillips. The condemned man had no last words to offer from the gallows. He did not flinch when the noose dangling from an overhead clevis, a U-shaped metal shackle, was placed around his neck.
The Perry Republican reported that some 80 people witnessed the hanging, noting that "the two coolest present" were Mr. Armstrong and the officer "whose solemn duty it was to arrange the details and operate the machinery that was the instrument of death." It was a time of rich descriptive superfluity of words in reportage of the news.
The straps were adjusted and a cap was placed on Mr. Armstrong's head. When the trap was sprung at 10:33 a.m., the bound body plunged through the opening on the floor of the elevated platform. The prisoner was pronounced dead of a broken neck 22 1/2 minutes later by Doctors Brengle and Watson. Mr. Armstrong had requested that his wife bury him in Pawnee, stating that if he was buried here his spirit would haunt this place and those instrumental in effecting his conviction and execution. "He displayed great hatred for Perry and its people," the Republican reported. But, no one appeared to claim the body, and the remains were interred at county expense in the local Catholic cemetery. The ghost story no doubt ensued as word of the victim's warning spread after the execution.
The widow of Isaac Fell was the only woman witnessing the hanging. She came here from Winfield, Kan., where the family had moved, to see her husband's killer punished. Although officially considered to be a public execution, photos of the wooden gallows show that at least two sides were fully screened by high fences. The site was on the grounds around the old wooden courthouse which stood near the northeast corner of the park, a short distance east and north of the present three-story stone courthouse.
The next Northwest Corner will wrap up final details of this story, along with some interesting present-day sidelights.