October 13, 1882
William Austin is hanged for murdering his great aunt with an axe
Austin, described by newspapers as “a wild, drunken youth” of 25, was hanged for the murder of his 85-year-old great aunt Elizabeth “Betsy” Bland. Bland was killed on January 20, 1882 by several blows to her head and neck by the sharp end of an axe, which left several deep gashes on her head and severed her vertebra. Boot impressions on Bland’s head and face denoted she had also been kicked repeatedly as she was dying of her wounds.
Austin, apparently visibly drunk at the time, stopped a group of men to inform them of his great aunt’s murder. The group didn’t believe Austin due to his inebriation but followed him anyway. At Bland’s home, they found her still-warm body in a bloody heap on the floor. The authorities and Bland’s brother Joseph were notified.
Police noticed several chests of drawers had been unlocked and Bland’s room was in a general state of disarray, leading them to believe the motive behind Bland’s murder to be robbery. Additionally, Joseph noted that, while Bland was known to keep $100 to $500 (approximately $2,500 to $12,500 today) in cash on hand at all times, only $2.50 was found.
Suspicions quickly turned to Austin whose clothing was blood-stained. He first declared the blood was from Bland, whom he claimed he discovered on the floor after she had been attacked, moaning and waving her arms at him and splattering him with blood in the process. When it was brought to his attention Bland’s neck injury would have prevented her from moving, and grey hair and blood was found on the bottom of his boots, Austin changed his story to claim he had caught a grey rabbit, placed his foot on the animal’s head, and tore the body off, which would account for the blood and hair. His contradictions raised further suspicion and Austin was arrested.
Upon his arrest, Austin asked a police officer to kill him. The officer advised the prisoner to “hush his noise, as he might convict himself,” and Austin briefly seemed to regain his composure before feebly attempting an escape. He was convicted of Bland’s murder on January 23, three days after her death, and sentenced to hang.
Appeals delayed Austin’s original execution date by several months; initially set to be carried out on April 18, Austin was brought to the scaffold on October 13. While the state law prohibited public hangings, some 3,000 spectators — comprised of adults and children — came to watch the execution by sitting on rooftops of nearby houses or finding other vantage points. As he stood ready for death, Austin confessed to killing his great aunt, but insisted whisky was the reason and firmly denied having stolen anything from Bland. Before he was hanged Austin stated he forgave the members of the jury who convicted him, told those witnessing the execution he believed repentant killers would be admitted to Heaven, and said he hoped to be reunited with his great aunt in the afterlife.
Hearn, Daniel Allen. Legal Executions in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky and Missouri. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2016
“William Austin Expiates His Crime.” Semi-Weekly Interior [Stanford, Kentucky]. October 17, 1882
“The Rope Route.” The Courier-Journal [Louisville, Kentucky]. October 14, 1882
“Austin Hanged.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. October 13, 1882
“The Verdict.” The Cincinnati Enquirer. January 23, 1882
“Brutal Murder.” The Cincinnati Enquirer. January 21, 1882